Referee Review - James Imlach - Manurewa vs. Karaka Premiers 

I had the privilege of refereeing Manurewa vs. Karaka Premiers and upon receiving my appointment two weeks prior to game day I immediately began looking forward to being a part of the fixture.  Although Karaka were top of the table and in scintillating form, I knew from past experience that Manurewa’s never-say-die attitude can help them overcome any team, particularly at home on a pitch conducive to open style rugby.  Refereeing at Mountford Park is always an extra special occasion for me as it was the scene of my Premier debut on Anzac Day, 25 April 2009 – a day forever etched in my memory.

The lead up to game day

In the past my weekday routine included a fairly rigid physical training regime, nutrition plan and some mental preparation (a touch OTT on reflection). These days, juggling other priorities and commitments requires greater flexibility, which has in fact enabled me to relax and enjoy the occasion a lot more that I had been. I believe this mind-set is helping improve my refereeing and game management.

Unfortunately, I picked up my first ever hamstring injury a few weeks ago and have since seen a physio (thanks Jess!) and chiropractor (twice weekly) to aid in my recovery. The jury is still out on whether I prefer my skeleton cracked over needles or a deep tissue massage! Because of this (minor) injury my hamstring is taped and any running is restricted to 70-80% max speed. I have been under strict instruction to avoid explosive work or sharp movements that could exacerbate the issue and prematurely end my season. Managing this type of injury has been a real learning curve and frustrating at times, particularly when we’re at the business end of the season. However, your body needs time to heal properly and, for the sake of longevity, it is important to trust in the advice offered to you by the experts.

These days I spend more time focusing on my mental preparation, from about Wednesday onwards. Nothing too extreme, rather simple exercises like self-evaluation and game analysis; replaying game plan goals and key scenarios in my head, visualising positive outcomes/moments of perfection; reviewing video footage of other referees and visualising myself performing their tasks; short spells of meditation to help alleviate any stress and anxiety from work or at home; and picturing correct set-piece and breakdown outcomes so that overtime it makes it easier for me to officiate on the field.  

As anticipated, work commitments kept me busy throughout the week and a long day-trip to Taupo on the Friday didn’t help with my energy levels. However, my son has a knack of picking me up and recharging my batteries, so any fatigue was short lived.  In the past I religiously avoided drinking alcohol the night before game day; however I’m not as superstitious anymore so enjoyed a beer (or three) to unwind and reward myself for surviving another week (btw this counts as mental prep in my book).

Game day

I woke early and downed a healthy breakfast that kept me going for a few hours. My ability to perform well is often predicated on how energised I am in the morning, so I tend not to oversleep or skimp on the first meal of the day. After a bit of housework and running a few errands I made my way to the park, aiming to arrive 90min before kick-off.  When refereeing a Premier match I like to allow myself a little more time to set my gear, meet the coaches to exchange pleasantries and schedule pre-match discussions, watch some of the preceding reserve game to help mentally prepare, carry out my pre-match talks with front rows and captains, and warm-up ready to kick-off at 2.45pm sharp. There was a freezing cross-field southerly so I knew I’d need a few more minutes to prepare.

We kicked off on time and from the outset both teams played expansive, open style rugby, recycling the ball with quick speed. I found myself caught in the play a couple of times early on, needing to adjust my positioning to a faster paced game that I hadn’t been exposed to the last couple of weeks.

Scrums were a key focus on the day; specifically pre-engagement ensuring front rows maintained a credible gap before they ‘set’. To help manage this, during my pre-match talks I outlined my expectations and processes, and sought buy-in from both teams and captains.  I reset the first scrum (or two) as both front-rows folded in early. I know we’re often evaluated on resets and encouraged to set high standards from scrum #1. And so we should. However in my view and depending on the circumstances (in this case early engagement by both teams), often a reset or two early on allows teams to settle into their routines. Players are pumped with testosterone and adrenaline during the first scrum or two, therefore I find a bit of empathy and man management early on can go a long way to being a respected and effective on-field manager for the remainder of the game.  That being said, I resorted to FK’s a couple of times during subsequent scrums when my set call was clearly beaten.

Karaka started well and deserved going into the break 26-15 ahead. It was a good battle (as anticipated) with Manurewa coming back strongly in the second half trailing 29-38 with a few minutes left on the clock, before Karaka sealed the win with a runaway try on full-time taking it 43-29.  The game was played with positive intent and provided entertaining rugby for the spectators and players. I thoroughly enjoyed the occasion and thank my AR’s John Wright and Paul Gallagher for their invaluable assistance on the side line.

During the after match I took the opportunity to quench my thirst with a complementary beer, debrief with Paul, club officials, captains and coaches, before heading home. As usual, Manurewa were very hospitable.  I left the venue feeling content with my overall contribution to the game and looking forward to the next contest.