To celebrate Ben Thaler’s birthday, we’ve gone into our Rugby League World archive and pulled out this piece with the Super League referee from earlier this year. You can read so much more like this every month in Rugby League World. Want to subscribe? Do so by going to totalrl.com/rlw
Picture this. You’re a top referee preparing to officiate one of the biggest games of the year. There’s a bit of an injury crisis within the ‘squad’ of officials, and you’re already down to referee two games this week. What would you do? You’d go and referee Knottingley against Sharlston Rovers, obviously.
Welcome to the life of Ben Thaler, the man who enjoyed a glorious ascent up the officiating ranks that culminated in him refereeing four of the biggest matches in the sport’s calendar in 2015.
In truth, his rise to the top of the game hasn’t come as a surprise to anyone that has known him for a long amount of time, in fact, it has probably taken longer than expected.
He refereed his first game at 13. By 15, he was taking charge of open-age matches and at the tender age of 19 he took the whistle of his first professional match between York City Knights and Leigh Centurions. But it wasn’t until last year in which he celebrated his 34th birthday that Thaler truly came to the limelight. He’s officiated in Super League for a long time, 10 years, to be precise, but this year was the one he truly made his own.
So what has been the secret to his success?
“A lot of it is luck,” he told RLW.
“It’s not all down to luck because you work hard on things. But sometimes it feels everything is against you and other games it all just goes perfectly.
“In the past couple of seasons I’ve thought I was probably in for a shot with some of the big games and it hasn’t come off, so I told myself to work even harder and get a little fitter.
“I prepared a bit differently and made sure I was fully focused on the game I was about to take charge of.
“Last year was the first time I knew I was ready to do something big. I’d refereed well in 2012, but I don’t think I was ready.
“I set my target out at the start of the year, a bit like when a player will say they want to play at Wembley or in a Grand Final. My target was to do Wembley and the Challenge Cup final. I couldn’t say I expected last year to go as well as it did, though.”
In many ways, his approach isn’t conventional. His way of communication with players probably isn’t textbook, but then again, he’s single-handedly rewriting it. He engages in the banter, he treats them as one of the lads, so to speak. But it works.
“There are certain players I can have a laugh with,” he said.
“I was in the same year at school as Ben Westwood, and one year we were the only two people to have 100% attendance. But Ben was late on about 196 of those occasions, so he didn’t get the award.
“We have a laugh on the pitch because he’s always the last person to the line, so I tease him about how he was always late at school.
“I’ve had other times at a scrum when I’ve given a knock-on that someone has said that was a crap decision, to which I’ll respond ‘sorry, it must be my fault you’ve knocked on four times this game’.
“You have to have a relationship with players, I’m a big believer in that. I know there’s a massive thing about respecting the referees, but I think the referee should respect the players just as much, if not more.
“You gain respect from that. People say that we get a lot of dissent, but if you’re working with them you can figure out when it is dissent and when it is frustration.
“I think talking to the players helps, and having a bit of banter with them when it’s needed helps, but you’ve got to know when to stand up and be aggressive.”
Of course, he has felt his own fair share of disappointment. After being appointed as the reserve referee in the Challenge Cup final in 2008, he was overlooked for the next five years in any capacity, while at Grand Finals he was appointed video referee on six occasions. It’s not that being in command of the square in the air is bad, it’s just not the same as being out on the field.
“People would joke and say I was always the bridesmaid or the glorified waterboy.
“I knew I had to change things, I remember thinking I didn’t want this. At the same time, assisting some top referees in some major finals makes you strive for better from a young age.”
It has ultimately paid dividends, with Thaler refereeing one of the three World Club Series games, the Challenge Cup final, the Grand Final and two of the autumn international Test series games between England and New Zealand in 2015.
But who is Ben Thaler away from the whistle? Well, he’s commonly known as ‘Bombay Ben’ due to his liking for the odd gin and tonic after a match. He’s an avid charity worker, working with a number of organisations around his hometown of Normanton and beyond. He takes pride in where he comes from, and has deep connections with his community in more ways than one. He’s also a self-confessed chatterbox, the type who could strike up a conversation with a till operator in the supermarket. He also likes being busy, although he is terribly disorganised.
But above all of he is a referee who not only has a major passion for Rugby League, but laying down the laws of the game.
Thaler might have officiated some of the world’s greatest players, but for every time he officiates in front of millions at home, he is forced to reprimand the beer-swilling amateurs of Rugby League that make him the referee he is today. He believes those games are more challenging than any Old Trafford showpiece.
There’s something charming about Thaler, purely because of the evident enthusiasm for the profession he has taken to new heights in the last 12 months. He’s so keen that he still trains with the Yorkshire junior referee’s every Wednesday night.
But while last year might well have been a glorious one, his ascent to the top of the officiating world hasn’t all been smooth.
Thaler was the victim of a catalogue of death threats following an incorrect decision made by the video referee in a game he was officiating. Inevitably, the messages were tough to take.
“They were stupid comments from some guys who think they can message you and your family abuse,” he said.
“That’s quite hard, especially when you know you’ve done nothing wrong. It’s too far.
“Nobody goes to work to make a mistake, and referees are the biggest critics of themselves, it doesn’t get brushed under the carpet. It’s hard to move on.
“The death threats all came my way, but the RFL dealt with it really well and I got an apology from the club.
“What was funny was that one of the people that sent me a threat owns a company and drives a van. Since then I’ve been sat next to him at traffic lights twice, so I’ve just looked at him and smiled. He didn’t even notice it was me, even though he told me he’d break my legs among other things.
“You do get nice comments too. The nicest was the other week in Sainsbury’s. A guy came up to me and said he thought I was terrible when I refereed at Hunslet, but I’m not bad now apparently.”
Staggeringly, Thaler’s planned trajectory up the refereeing pyramid was put into doubt almost a decade ago when a visit to the doctors resulted in him being diagnosed with a heart murmur and enlarged heart.
Following the recent death of Danny Jones, awareness of heart issues has become more common knowledge in Rugby League, but 10 years ago that wasn’t the case. It was a nervous time for Thaler.
“In 2006 I was in a meeting and didn’t feel very well. I think I’d had an argument with somebody. The morning after I fainted and went to hospital and I had to have a lot of checks.
“They found out I had a heart murmur and an enlarged heart, which was quite funny because my girlfriend at the time commented saying he might have a big heart but he doesn’t give a lot of love!
“It was quite scary. I got the all clear but I had to get a letter from the doctor. Anyway, at that time we did the Cooper Test, which is 3,000 metres in 12 minutes, which is very tasking. Ian Smith ran it with me and I literally passed this test with two seconds to spare, which allowed me to referee again.
“It can result in high blood pressure, but that’s settled down now, generally I’m a lot better now than before.”
Thankfully, his condition doesn’t threaten his career, with regular heart checks now the norm while the death of Jones has seen heart scans become common within refereeing circles.
However, another illness almost left his goal of officiating last year’s Challenge Cup in tatters.
“I was supposed to be officiating Castleford vs St Helens on the television, but I didn’t feel well at all.
“I was talking to my girlfriend on the phone and I fainted in the house. I ended up in hospital for three days and I had an infection because I’d worn myself down.
“I was refereeing well at the time, but Steve Ganson rang me and said I wouldn’t be officiating the week after, and it brought a tear to my eye because I wanted the game, it was Hull FC vs Leeds in the Challenge Cup quarter-final.
“But true to his word, he said if I came back and kept performing as I was doing, it won’t affect me. People say that but you don’t believe them. But then when it was announced in the boardroom that I got the Challenge Cup, Steve said ‘I told you’.”
As for the future, Thaler plans on emulating, and surpassing, his accomplishments in 2015. The first goal is to officiate the main game in the World Club Series between Leeds and North Queensland Cowboys. After that, he plans to hold on to his Challenge Cup and Grand Final jerseys while also taking charge in the Four Nations.
“The standard of refereeing is higher than ever,” he said.
“Obviously, there are people behind me who want to take some of the big games, but for them to do that I’m going to make sure they have to raise their standard to a level above mine.
“I’d like to think I have another 10 or 11 seasons left in me. I’m sure the fans won’t like to hear that though!”