Making the game better

2013-08-30 00:00

HE’S had a varied rugby career, playing tighthead prop, flank and flyhalf at school before settling for the whistle.

Stuart Berry (31) has risen steadily through the ranks since his rugby coach at Hillcrest High School, John Cafeterio, suggested he look at taking up refereeing.

“I had played rugby from primary school up until standard nine [Grade 11], when I took on hockey and soccer instead,” said Berry. “In matric, I went on a referee beginner course and in my first year of varsity, I took it further, officiating at schoolboy matches.”

Berry had found the ideal career to pursue, combining his love of sport, the outdoors and exercise into running around a rugby field. He was hungry for success and wanted to climb the ladder, keen for bigger challenges, bigger matches, more responsibility.

“Phil Botha and Roger May, president and chairperson of the KZN Referees Society, took me under their wing and were huge factors in shaping my career,” said Berry. “This is the same route followed by some of South Africa’s top referees, including Jonathan Kaplan, Craig Joubert and Marius Jonker. I was in good company and knew I was on the right track to enhance my progress in the refereeing world.”

In 2001, Berry was on the KwaZulu-Natal referees panel, a position afforded the top 10 whistleblowers in the province. He was making swift progress.

“I had discovered a new culture and was feeding off it. The next step from school rugby was club rugby, the best learning ground for anyone wishing to get involved in rugby,” said Berry. “There I was, an 18-year-old, travelling to Wentworth for an 8 pm game, with no rugby background as such, journeying into the unknown. It was a mature experience, and I grew to love going to these games. There was a different feel and atmosphere to the game, and I honestly attribute to where I am today to those years of refereeing at club level.”

Berry’s first real test came in 2002, when he was sent to Port Elizabeth as part of a referee exchange programme. He had to take charge of a Despatch game and besides ensuring he made the right calls and decisions, there was an extra twist in the tale.

“Who was the Despatch captain? None other than Springbok and Eastern Province lock Adri Geldenhuys,” said Berry. “He was a South African rugby icon and had more than his fair share of on-field incidents. However, I was the man in charge, and would have the final say on the field, yet it was a humbling experience calling a game with a player of such high calibre involved.”

It’s no easy task refereeing rugby at any level. Spectators, armchair critics, players — everyone has their own version of play and the decision it warrants. Berry is all too aware of this and has a simple approach to dealing with what will always be an area of contention.

“We work hard and follow set procedures in making it to the top of refereeing. We don’t just arrive with a whistle in hand,” he said. “Yes, the nature of the game will always see refs being tested from all angles, but the key is to take command early, giving players a clear indication of where you stand and how you will deal with incidents.”

Berry has been fortunate to see what he calls “the old system” followed by referees, whereby there was a definite set of steps to be followed, changed in 2001, whereby progress is now made based on performance and how good a referee is. “It’s no good having a top-notch referee staying at club or school level for so many years because the system says so. Like the game of rugby, progress is vital and so it applies to refereeing as well,” he said.

Progress is what Berry is about. In 2003, he was on the SA Rugby panel and in 2010, the SA Elite panel, the latter reserved for the top 10 refs in South Africa. Last year, he graduated to the Super 15 panel, making his debut in the Cheetahs against Western Force clash.

This year, Berry had seven Super 15 clashes on his schedule, all games in South Africa, as his business commitments do not allow him to travel often.

Taking charge of a match is not as simple as it looks. Berry is subject to a performance review by Sanzar after every match where a select panel analyses the match and his officiating.

“It’s all IT based and is an athlete-management system which is loaded, allowing the players to be studied, how the scrums went, what tackles were made and my decisons,” said Berry.

“It focuses on team and game trends. Before each match, I watch hours of video, seeing areas of difficulty experienced by the sides I will be refereeing and planning ways to fix them. I need to get a balance and work out my approach.”

That’s just skimming the surface but today’s technology allows referees to focus on making the game better and rating themselves.

“As referees, we strive to achieve what is beneficial to the game of rugby. We are only human and are vulnerable to mistakes,” said Berry. “Like the game itself, we will also take some knocks to the chin and have low points, but the character of a great man and team is measured by how well an onslaught can be withstood, and how positive the road ahead can be.”

Berry Facts

• Every season is started with a fitness assessment for the IRB, Sanzar and SA Rugby.

• Refereed at this year’s Junior World Cup, taking charge of the semi-final between England and New Zealand.

• His goal is to referee Test matches by the end of 2015.

• He is running touch in Dunedin in October for the Rugby Championship match between the All Blacks and Australia.

• Later this year, he is in Paris for two weeks for the IRB Elite Referees conference.

• His first contact with the IRB was in 2010/11 when he refereed at the IRB Sevens.

• His best memory is refereeing Samoa v New Zealand at the sevens in Las Vegas.

• In 2004, he was refereeing a Wildebeest game at King’s Park when Wildebeest wing Joos Joubert caught the ball on the run and ran straight into him (Berry), flipping him over and back on his feet for the perfect 10 somersault.

• In a Currie Cup match at Loftus in 2009 between the Bulls and Leopards, he issued one red and three yellow cards.

Lifestyle

• Enjoys adventure sport

• Prefers action movies

• Likes a social beer

• Started saxophone and harmonica lessons

• Enjoys all types of music

• Is not much of a domestic or cook

• Enjoys watching series on TV

• Plays golf off a nine handicap

• Loves Africa and would choose a trip somewhere on the continent to a trip overseas.

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