The latest Connacht Rugby new referee courses have attracted strong numbers with interest in becoming an official in the province strong.
Sixteen candidates, from clubs across Connacht, attended a virtual classroom session on October 14th to progress themselves as potential referees.
Peter Fitzgibbon, the IRFU referee development and educational manager, is pleased with the participation numbers and the enthusiasm of budding referees in the new referees course in Connacht.
Fitzgibbon, who officiated over 150 professional games and 10 Test matches, has presided over the development of referees since he called time on his refereeing career in 2016. With the ongoing pandemic halting any face-to-face sessions, the officiating seminars have gone online with a Zoom call -- acting as a virtual classroom -- taking place on October 14th.
In total, 16 prospective referees attended and six clubs from three of the province's counties -- Ballinrobe, Connemara, Galwegians, Loughrea, Our Lady's Boys Club, Sligo, and Tuam -- were represented among the participants, a group which also included two female attendees. There was also a good age balance with the youngest being 19 and the eldest aged 40.
“There was lots of enthusiasm. Good engagement on the course and in the meetings and a lot of questions. They’re not just sitting there and listening, they’re coming in with questions and we’re trying to make it as engaging as possible,” the Limerick native said.
“When we get matches back up and running again, the next big step is to get those new recruits out on the pitch, touch judging initially and then out reffing after that.”
There are various courses candidates can do to take their first step into officiating, starting with an affiliate course for people who want to take the whistle in their own club and or schools. For a referee to progress past this and become a “trial member”, they must complete an online course, attend a meeting -- over Zoom -- and then participate in future workshops.
From there, the potential referees will touch judge a game beside an experienced referee -- to experience a matchday and all the facets associated with it, including pitch inspections and collecting team-sheets -- before eventually officiating a game themselves.
Typically, it would be an underage game with their performance being monitored by a member of the ARCB -- Association of Referees Connacht Branch -- who would dispense advice if and when it is needed. Depending on their performances at this level, a budding referee could rise through the ranks and eventually become senior officials.
Fitzgibbon, whose last elite game as a referee was a Connacht game, says the manifold benefits of refereeing -- be they exercise or as a means for former players to stay involved in the game -- attract new candidates each year.
“The general benefits of exercise are well known, both from a physical and mental health point of view,” the former Thomond RFC player said.
“Guys who finish playing but they don’t want to end their on-pitch involvement and say that ‘maybe coaching isn’t for me and I’d like to stay out on the pitch, running around and being involved in the game’ come to us. Refereeing is the next best thing. Nothing beats playing, but if you can’t play, refereeing is the next best thing.
“You get younger people then who for some reason -- maybe injury -- stop playing. A couple might have had concussions and can’t play or some have a real interest in the game but the playing side of it just isn’t for them, and they’d just like to give refereeing a go.
“Everything from people who are just finishing up playing, or maybe did a little bit of a stint in coaching and want to give refereeing a try to people who just said ‘look, I’ll give this a go and see how I get on’. There’s a broad spectrum of clubs, ages, and male and female", the 2008 Junior World Cup final referee said.
Fitzgibbon takes great reward from seeing referees he has mentored go from strength to strength and climb the officiating ladder within Ireland. Andy Fogarty is the latest referee to come through the Connacht system -- starting off as a trial member -- and advance to the IPAS(Interprovincial appointment system).
As a reward for his progression, Fogarty -- a member of the ARCB -- was added to the All Ireland League panel at the end of last season.
“He is one who has progressed through”, Fitzgibbon said.
“We also have three guys in the IPAS group, who referee outside their province at Junior level as a testing ground for the AIL, Dhani McGuire, Shane Gaughan, and Nathan Kearns. We have a development stream coming through all the time. We’re hoping to bring guys through into senior reffing and the AIL and keep that supply from the bottom up coming through all the time.
“The reward is seeing lads progress and coming through. Not so much that they reach the top level, more that they realize their potential. Everyone has different potential. There’s as much enjoyment from seeing a guy progress from age-grade into reffing their first adult match than there is seeing a guy referee his first senior match.”
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