Mid Canterbury referee Kevin Opele has blown the whistle on thousands of games covering different codes and different sports. Photo Joseph JohnsonMid Canterbury rugby referee Kevin Opele quietly celebrated a 150 senior match milestone recently.
Opele, 40, has actually refereed double that number if you take into account games at tournaments and other levels.
He also has 3000-plus touch rugby games under his belt, including more than 100 internationals, as well as 122 netball games.
He has refereed four of the last five Watters Cup finals and was Mid Canterbury Rugby’s busiest referee last season.
He was also named Official of the Year at the recent Mid Canterbury Sports Awards.
This year he is dividing his time between senior rugby and netball, with no thoughts of putting the whistle away, despite the commitment needed to stay physically fit and abreast of all the rule changes across both sports.
Opele started refereeing touch in 2001, officiating at national and international matches, then took up refereeing rugby league and rugby matches.
It’s been by and large a rewarding experience, though twice he has needed a police escort to leave the field – the second time was a match where the players and spectators had gang affiliations.
“I do it for the enjoyment of being in the thick of it and seeing some pretty epic skills from amazing athletes, but it’s also a great sense of achievement knowing that you’ve contributed to making it a good game.
“It is quite a lonely place sometimes as an official as you’re not in a team any more and you just have to accept that 50 per cent are going to love how you did and the other half will think you’re a right idiot who doesn’t know the rules or needs glasses.
“I’ve been threatened to be killed during a game, so nothing really surprises me now with how much people get involved in the game.”
He said he generally didn’t hear comments from spectators, but often they were around rules of the game that no longer existed.
“So many people think we have favourites, but we don’t. We don’t care who wins or loses.
“The skills you see on TV or at rep level mean that the game is controlled differently.
“We can’t impose the same rules here as players simply don’t have the skillset to do it.”
Opele said verbal abuse came with the territory, though referees spent time talking with team leaders and coaches about rule interpretations and expected behaviour.
Good captains kept their players under control and kept their cool talking to match officials.
“Good captains make good teams.
“Eric Duff (Southern) would be the best captain in Mid Canterbury – he understands pressure and he knows when to talk.”
Opele said there was more opportunity in rugby than netball to chat to players about their play to eliminate stoppages by the whistle.
There was always banter with halfbacks, usually the most talkative players on the paddock.
His least favourite games are at youth level, where parents often had poor knowledge of the rules and shouted abuse at the referee.
This only encouraged young people to think talking to a match official that way was okay.
Opele said there had been many positive highlights though over his long career that made the hours of training worthwhile.
He remembers the thrill of hearing the New Zealand anthem played before a touch test match between Australia and New Zealand in Australia in 2009; Australia won then 12-11 in extra time.
He also remembers his first class debut as a rugby referee, which was a game between the Thames Swamp Foxes and Buller in August 2013.
Opele was selected into a national referee training squad that year, but had to withdraw because of work.
“I see the guys who were in that squad now doing international games, so you always wonder if that could have been me.”
Opele said referees’ contributions to their sport often lasted much longer than a player’s, yet they were rarely recognised.
“So before you decide to shout out some passionate message to an official, just remember no-one’s getting paid here, we’re all doing it for the love of sport.”
By Linda Clarke © The Ashburton Guardian - 18 May 2018