Rugby League Heroes: Robin Whitfield

The poacher turned gamekeeper

Robin Whitfield was a prolific goalkicker for Widnes, Barrow and Huyton, but when the latter refused to pick him any more because of his terrible disciplinary record, he took up refereeing

He officiated in the top-flight for nearly 15 years and went down under to take control of State of Origin and Test matches. He is the elder brother of Colin, formerly of Salford and Wigan.

If you could relive one day from your career, which would it be?
I refereed the 1986 Test series between Australia and New Zealand and the game that stood out was the second Test at the Sydney Cricket Ground. Australia won the series 3-0. Being on the field with that class of footballer was tremendous and Wally Lewis was a marvellous fella. It was something to make you pinch yourself. The Cricket Ground was great. I’m a big fan of cricket, which made it more special.

Tell us about your playing career with Widnes, Barrow and Huyton.
When I played, the big names of yesteryear like Vince Karalius and Alex Murphy were all there. My debut came at 18 when I was called in at the last minute to play against Wigan. Seven or eight of their players were about to go on the 1962 tour, so they were a great side, but we beat them 12-10 and I kicked three goals. I also remember beating New Zealand with Widnes. I kicked a goal. They are rare things, but I was lucky to be involved.
Barrow was a smashing club. Frank Foster and Spanky McFarlane helped me tidy up my tackling technique. I played with Tommy Brophy and Keith Jarrett. Keith had health problems and had to pack in at 25, which was such a shame because he was a great player. He challenged me to a goalkicking contest in training one day. He put the ball down on the 40 and said, “Off you go.” When I lined it up, he said, “No, that way,” and pointed to the other posts. I knew I couldn’t kick it 60 metres, but he did. It even hit the stand roof and went out of the ground. I’d never seen anything like it.

And what about Huyton?
I’ve just been watching some boxing and that was the way we played! I got sent off several times and, in the end, they told me they wouldn’t pick me again. That’s why I became a referee. We didn’t have the class to keep up with the other teams. I remember Wakefield coming to us. They were top of the league. I was fullback and followed Neil Fox everywhere and we beat them 5-0. I read recently that the biggest embarrassment in Wakefield’s history was the day they lost to Huyton.

You were the referee when the Bradford players walked off the field at Hull KR in 1982. What on earth happened?
[laughs] I went onto the field to do the toss-up and could feel something wasn’t right. Someone said, “Make sure you referee it properly.” I thought that was odd. The fighting started almost immediately. I warned the players I’d send them off, but it continued. Anyway, five had been sent off and then Jeff Grayshon was involved in a tackle and got up complaining. He’d flattened someone, so I sent him off as well. He turned to his team-mates and gestured for them to go off. Apparently, they’d said if one more went off, they’d all go with him.
There were discussions in the tunnel. I said I can’t play myself and I can’t referee nobody, so I abandoned the game. It was nearly two years before I was sent to Bradford again.

You were the referee when Joe Lydon dropped a mammoth goal in the 1989 Challenge Cup semi-final. What was the most amazing thing you saw a player do?
That would be one of them, although it still wasn’t as good as Keith Jarrett’s kick in training! I was convinced Joe was just going to kick it down the field. He seemed to stall and then change his style of kick. I had to turn and then chase it like mad to see if it went over or not.

Did having a long playing career make you a better referee?
In some ways. I actually did things my own way to some extent. For example, I took the players back ten yards when the rule was just five. I just thought it would lead to more ball movement. I refereed Warrington v Castleford one day. The scrums were a mess back then, and you could find a penalty against either side in every one if you wanted to. So I got Les Boyd and Bob Beardmore together and asked what we should do about them. Les suggested uncontested scrums and everyone agreed. It led to a much cleaner game. Everyone at the RFL wanted to know why the game flowed so well. I wouldn’t tell them. Eventually I did and they said, “You can’t do that,” but I was just using some common sense.

I found one game – the 1981 Roses – when you refereed Colin. Was that the only one?
Yes, that was at Castleford. It was a bit tricky. I was appointed and then Colin was put in the Lancashire team because someone cried off. I was told I’d have to be taken off, but I protested and said I would be fair, so they agreed. The only thing I said to him was when he was kicking a goal. “Come over to your left a bit,” I said as he was lining it up. He practised his goalkicking with me and I advised him to use sand because I’d seen them do it in Australia.
He also played for Rochdale in a Division Two match at London, which I reffed and he scored. He tells everyone I took about two minutes to give it! I remember an opponent shouting, “Last tackle!” so Colin kicked it, and I penalised him for it. There’s all kinds that goes on that you don’t see.

Which were the friendliest and unfriendliest grounds to officiate at?
Watersheddings at Oldham was terrible to referee at. Doncaster wasn’t much better. In terms of hostile crowds, you got grief everywhere, but the Threepenny Stand at Hull sticks out. At Leeds, I’d lift the ball up to wave at the South Stand when they were all giving me abuse.

There’s a story on Ellery Hanley’s Wikipedia page that you sin-binned him and in response, he told you you’d soon be a Division Two ref, is that right?
Ish! Andy Gregory started it all. Coming off at half-time, I spoke to both clubs about putting the ball down the middle of the scrum. But Andy kept putting it in on the Wigan side. Andy and Ellery started having a go at me, and the language went too far, so I called Ellery back and sent him off. That was during half-time. We nearly ended up fighting in the tunnel, but that would have been pretty stupid.
Other than that, I had no problem with Hanley on the field and he’s a great fella off the field. My wife and I were organising something in a club in Widnes. I rang him and met him in Leeds, and he treated me like a long-lost brother. He said he regretted what happened and that no one had got him going like that. We just agreed to blame Andy Gregory instead!

What was Garry Schofield like to ref?
He was always offside! He scored the early interception try in the Yorkshire Cup Final in 1987. I told him I knew he was offside, but I hadn’t seen it, so I couldn’t do anything about it. Later, when Castleford were pressing, I looked at the play-the-ball and quickly turned around. He was five yards offside. I got him that time! He was a great player though and we got on well. I didn’t have a problem with players.

What other incidents with players come to mind?
There was a Sheffield prop who just couldn’t play the ball properly and I kept penalising him. They lost to Runcorn on the back of those penalties. He didn’t like me. And then at Sheffield one day, he played it properly and said, “You haven’t got me today, have you?” Not yet,” I said. I then pinged him for offside, but he was just happy I hadn’t got him for playing the ball incorrectly. He admitted later he’d got his sons out in the park to practise playing the ball!
I also remember Huddersfield’s Keith Mason (snr). The scrum-half was giving me stick, so I sent him off. Keith came over and pleaded with me to change it to a sinbin. This never happens but I agreed with him and changed it to a sinbin. It was before red and yellow cards. The official explanation was the scrum-half had misunderstood and that I’d been pointing to something else. Until now, only Keith knew the truth!

What is the biggest mistake you made?
I made loads but often didn’t realise until after the match. In 1983 I blew for a knock-on against Steve Mortimer and quickly realised I might have made a mistake. Steve protested and I told him the touch judge had signalled to me to give the knock on. That was a good way to get out of it!

How urgent is it that the sport tackles abuse aimed at referees?
I don’t know what it’s like now, but it was horrific at times. You had to sneak out the back door. You couldn’t have a go back because you’d end up the bad guy.

How irritating is it when coaches blame defeats on referees?
It didn’t bother me too much, to be honest. My favourite incident with a coach was a cup semi-final involving Alex Murphy. He came marching over to me at half-time and shouted, “Who do you think you are? God?” I said, “How can I be God when I’m talking to him?” He was gobsmacked and someone took a photo of him open-mouthed just as I said it.

Your career was an unusual one. If you could go back to age 18, would you do it all over again?
Oh yes, absolutely. I loved every minute. I’ve got dodgy knees, a new hip, a shoulder reconstruction and bits missing from my spine, all down to my career, but apart from that, I’m buzzing. I’m 78 in a fortnight and I can have no complaints!

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