Ulster Rugby spoke to Referee of the Year Award-winner, Chris Busby, about his refereeing career and what he’s been up to since the onset of COVID-19 led to the suspension of rugby activity.
“I’m probably a typical referee story”, said Busby. “I picked up injuries at school and played on for a couple of years, but I wasn’t properly fit. I wanted to stay in the game in some way, so I thought I would give refereeing a go. I didn’t really have any big aspirations when I started; for me it was about keeping fit and staying involved in the game.”
Chris and other IRFU referees have been making the most out of the enforced break from rugby by learning and focusing on off-pitch aspects of the game.
“The IRFU referee department, led by Dudley Phillips, Johnny Lacey and David Wilkinson, has been fantastic during this period, and has ensured we have taken this time to really develop. From a personal point-of-view, I took it as an opportunity that I wouldn’t have had for some down time to work on fitness and do a lot more running. Very often, we go from week-to-week and in some ways, it’s been nice to have a block of time off.
“We [IRFU referees] have been really busy, focusing on off-pitch areas, improving game understanding. We have had a few Zoom calls a week on specific technical areas of the game, with people like Paul O’Connell, John Fogarty, the Irish scrum coach, Joe Schmidt and Andy Farrell. I’m really looking forward to getting back on the pitch; I feel like we have taken an awful lot from this period and it’ll be good to put what we’ve worked on into action.
“Players and referees are the same in that we’re missing rugby. I’m looking forward to meeting with other referees and going for coffees and heading to games. It’s one of those things you don’t fully appreciate until it’s taken away from you. One of the big things I miss is being involved in games and working with that referee group which is pretty close-knit.”
Similar to players, Chris and other referees have been working hard to keep fit and be match-ready for when rugby resumes.
“There have been two blocks of training. Since the start of lockdown in April and May, we didn’t have any structured fitness sessions, so for me, I wanted to work on my fitness and lose a bit of weight. From June onwards, the IRFU have been excellent in doing strength and conditioning programmes with us. There’s a small group of refs in Ulster who meet a couple of times a week for more rugby-specific fitness training like ‘Bronco’ tests. Now we’re focusing on getting ready for games to return.”
For Busby, the biggest challenge of being a referee is how unpredictable games can be.
“We prepare as much as we can but no two games are the same and you can be presented with similar situations week-to-week, but how you deal with them and the different factors at play means the outcome can be totally different. You have to be adaptable, read the situation, read people and then decide what will work best for the game. That comes with a bit of experience; you never really stop learning.”
In rugby union, the laws are often tweaked or aspects of the game are scrutinised more closely to encourage player safety. This season, the breakdown will be an area of focus for referees like Busby.
“This season is a little different in that changes are not quite so referee-led. A wide group of stakeholders met in Paris; referees like Wayne Barnes and Jaco Peyper were there, as well as coaches Joe Schmidt and Richie Gray, plus players such as Victor Vito. We looked at how we can get better outcomes at breakdown for all stakeholders. This season, we will referee the existing breakdown laws more stringently. That means trying to get more players on their feet in the breakdown and ensuring arriving players are coming ‘through the gate’ at the breakdown as well. The number-one priority for referees is player safety, no matter the level of rugby being played, so we try to apply the laws fairly.”
In the last two seasons, Chris has had lots of opportunities to travel and push on with his development.
“At the end of the 2018-19 season, I went to Boston for ten days; Jonny Erskine [another Ulster referee] and I refereed the Cara Cup games, where Ulster ‘A’ played the New England Free Jacks and Connacht Eagles. It was a great experience. This season, I refereed two U20 Six Nations games – Wales vs. Scotland and Wales vs. Italy. I also had the chance to go to France to referee a couple of their second division games. It pushed me out of my comfort zone to referee games in which people didn’t all speak very good English. It was my first chance to referee in professional rugby and the extra intensity was fantastic. It’s a wonderful way to see different parts of the world that aren’t necessarily tourist destinations.”
When asked about advice for anyone thinking of picking up a whistle, Busby’s message is simple.
“Just do it,” he said. “Talk to Richard Kerr, Ulster’s Provincial Referee Development Manager – you might be surprised how much you enjoy it and how much you get out of it. I was on the fence and thought about it for a while before doing anything. I would have been a lot worse off in all walks of life if I hadn’t made that phone call. There are worse things you can do on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon. You’re well looked after by both teams and the Ulster referees are a tight team themselves too. It’s a great way to stay involved in the game.”