Rugby World Cup-bound referee Ben O’Keeffe returned to where it all began for him last week.
The 30-year-old, now based in Wellington, was back in Marlborough to do some work with Tasman referees and found time to drop into his old secondary school, addressing the Marlborough Boys’ College First XV.
Ben’s burgeoning refereeing career began in Marlborough, where he was a student at St Mary’s Primary School and MBC, becoming head boy in 2006 and playing three years for the First XV.
During his final years at secondary school he began refereeing, following in the footsteps of his father, Peter O’Keeffe, one of the province’s top whistleblowers. At Otago University Ben played some social rugby, but soon decided he derived more pleasure from officiating and joined the local association.
His rise through the ranks was meteoric and within five years he was a professional referee, handling provincial games, Super Rugby and finally test matches, having controlled 14 senior internationals to date.
He refereed the final of the 2014 IRB Junior World Championships, but is no doubt the 2019 Rugby World Cup, to be staged in Japan from September 20 to November 2 will be his biggest challenge.
Ben received a call from world referee manager Alain Rolland in late March confirming his place among the 12 referees selected to handle the RWC games.
He said relief was his over-riding emotion after getting the nod.
“I was really happy with my performances in test rugby for the past four years … so I felt I had done everything I could so I thought ‘if I don’t get selected there was really nothing more I could have done, I had no regrets about not performing’.
“I would have been disappointed for sure because I thought, ‘I’m good enough, they have put me in the top group of referees so I should be going’. When it was finally confirmed it was a huge relief, it was awesome.”
Despite being thrust onto world rugby’s biggest stage, Ben says he has no nerves, as yet. “Nerves probably won’t kick in until I get to the tournament, get into the environment. I really don’t know what to expect. It’s not like a one-off test match … I’ve done a junior World Cup, but I expect this to be very different.”
Having refereed two Super Rugby games and one test match in Japan, Ben has had a taste of what the host nation can offer and expects it to be unique.
“Rugby isn’t massive in Japan, but the people that know rugby know it completely inside and out and they love it. You go to a game and the fans will support both teams … they will cheer for the Sunwolves when they score a try and be just as loud when the Highlanders, for example, do something well.
“They love the spectacle, it’s amazing to be there. The World Cup will be very well supported and very well run. Japanese people are very proud of their hosting, so they will try really hard to put on a superb tournament.”
Remaining calm in the middle is a key factor in officiating, at any level, but the pressure obviously ramps up as the stakes grow higher.
Ben has a few processes that help him keep his cool when it appears all around him are losing theirs.
“I do a lot of visualization … reminding myself to make clear and obvious decisions, be calm, control what you can and just trust and enjoy what is in front of you.”
During a match he has developed a series of “health checks”, taken every 15 minutes or so, designed to evaluate his efforts and take an overview of the game whereby he can notice trends and stay focused.
“It keeps me connected to the game the whole time. Rather than just flowing along, I can keep connecting these blocks and you find you have done the game and been in control for the whole 80”.
Asked to offer some advice for young folk who are picking up the whistle in any sport, Ben has some succinct advice.
“Don’t try and be perfect. Just go out there and enjoy it … I have been doing this for more than 11 years and I still make errors, I’m still improving.
“If you try to be perfect you won’t actually get the full benefit out of what you are doing, which is just the enjoyment of being involved in the game.”
Ben, who is also a qualified doctor, specializing in ophthalmology, the treatment and diagnosis of eye disorders, could face the usual refereeing conundrum at the RWC.
With referees unable to officiate in matches involving their home nations, would he rather referee a final without the All Blacks in it or watch from the sidelines as they play the decider in Yokohama?
His answer is emphatic.
“It’s easy. I would rather see the All Blacks make the final and win it, that’s for sure.
I’m just happy to be going the World Cup. I’ll referee as well as I can and hopefully get some high-profile games but I don’t need to do a final, although if New Zealand weren’t in the final, [a chance to officiate] would be fantastic as well.”