Cape Town - In an exclusive interview, NIC BERRY talks about refereeing the All Blacks-Springboks in July, what it means to appear at his maiden World Cup and who he rates as the top halfbacks in the game today.
Sport24 asked: How tough was it calling time on your career due to concussion?
Nic Berry: It was obviously a little devastating when the neurosurgeon said I couldn’t play anymore but, after a few months, a sense of relief washed over me. It took the decision out of my hands, and when I heard the relief in the voices of my loved ones that I was retiring, it put everything into perspective. As a young professional rugby player you are selfish in the sense that it’s your body and your decision. You are hungry to achieve, so you are happy to put yourself in the firing line, but having children is a grounding experience. When I started to see the impact my concussions were having on the people closest to me, it made me realise I’m not just a rugby player, but a husband, father, son and friend. I retired earlier than I had envisioned and I believe the game has moved on so much in the seven years. The awareness of concussion and the symptoms of repeated concussion is so much greater than it was...The medical staff that handled me in terms of the return to play protocol did the best that they could and I never felt pressured to take to the field. In saying that, as a young rugby player you always want to get back on the field as quickly as possible. Knowing what I know now about concussion and the potential long-term implications of repeated concussion, I probably would have hung up the boots sooner than I did. I called time because the best neurosurgeons couldn’t say, “We are not sure what impact this is going to have on your long-term health,” and when you start hearing things about early onset dementia, it really makes you consider the implications of putting yourself at further risk. Right now, I am fortunate in the sense that I don’t have any day-to-day symptoms of concussion and don’t lose sleep worrying about what might potentially happen 20 years from now. In terms of refereeing, the players and public are also more informed and expect to see penalties for anything high. First and foremost, as referees we aim to provide a safe environment for the players. Above everything else, we want to protect their safety.
Sport24 asked: How have you found the transition from playing to refereeing?
Nic Berry: Funnily enough refereeing was never something I had really thought about while I was playing. I thought that once my playing days were done, my rugby days were over. I moved back to Australia with my family and it wasn’t until Andrew Cole, who had refereed me in Super Rugby, sounded me out that it become a possibility. He planted the seed and twisted my arm to give refereeing a go. And once I tried it, I loved the challenge. I’m still able to experience a high performance environment and it’s been a really enjoyable transition. Obviously the environment is similar but the challenges are very different being a player. You learn a lot about yourself as a referee because it often feels like loneliest place in the world. When you make a mistake as a player, you have your teammates there who give you a pat on the back and say, “Righto, next job and let’s move on.” Whereas, unfortunately as a referee you are on a hiding to nothing and are probably the least liked person and no matter how well you do, half the stadium is going to hate you by the end. Refereeing has its unique challenges and its rewarding aspects as well. It’s satisfying when you come off having felt you really contributed to the game and made the correct decisions under pressure.
Sport24 asked: What do you make of the forward pass that wasn’t at Newlands?
Nic Berry: I not only keep away from social media but media in general, so I didn’t know that the forward pass in the Stormers-Crusaders game was still being spoken of. That is the environment in which we operate and sometimes the decisions we make have massive implications. As match officials, we go through a review process and are held accountable for the decisions we make, and appointments change accordingly. It was a tough one (the forward pass incident) but all of us who were involved have learned from it and hopefully will not make the same mistake in the future... The higher you go in refereeing, the more important it is to strike a balance between technical competence and artistic input. There is a massive technical aspect to the laws of the game and fundamentally what we as referees are there to do is provide a platform for both teams to be able to play in. It’s how you interpret the laws which differentiate between a world-class referee and your regular run of the mill referee. As a referee, you have to continually appraise your performances and find aspects of your game that require improvement. You are always trying to get better, which I find to be one of the attractive parts of this profession.
Sport24 asked: What will it mean to referee the All Blacks-Springboks in July?
Nic Berry: I was one of Nigel Owens’s assistant referees when the Springboks beat the All Blacks 36-34 in Wellington last year. It was a great game to be involved in and it’s a thrill to be appointed for the rematch in the Rugby Championship this season. New Zealand versus South Africa is the epitome of a blockbuster clash and there will be a full crowd packed into the Cake Tin. Both teams will be looking to bash each other, so it will be a great one to be involved in. There is an incredible history between the two teams and I am humbled by the appointment. When it comes to the pinnacle match, it’s going to be different for every referee and for someone up north their dream match to officiate may be England against Ireland. From a personal point of view, refereeing the All Black-Bok fixture will be right up there and it will definitely be a great occasion. In last year’s match, South Africa rolled New Zealand in Wellington, so they will be backing themselves to get another scalp down there, but the Kiwis won’t want to relinquish another one on their home soil. Teams will want to win those games not only because it’s the Rugby Championship, but due to the fact that they will be aiming to take that mental edge into the World Cup.
Sport24 asked: Do you regret having never played a Test for the Wallabies?
Nic Berry: Like many kids growing up in Australia, I would have given my right arm to have played for the Wallabies. However, I don’t begrudge anything that did or didn’t happen in my career and I consider myself very fortunate to have played professionally for as long as I did and for three wonderful clubs. I lived in three different countries and was privileged to experience those diverse cultures. I wouldn’t change anything that happened in my career but, in saying that, I would have given it all up for one appearance in the gold jersey… I grew up idolising George Gregan and had the opportunity to play against him. I was in my first year and he was in his last. It was a big thrill for me playing against him. Super Rugby is incredibly competitive and I made the decision to head overseas when I was 23. I hadn’t been selected for the extended Wallaby squad and realised there was little chance me ever playing Test rugby. I had Will Genia, who was a couple years my junior, breathing down my neck and looking back, signing with Racing was one of the best career and life decisions I ever made. Genia made the most of every opportunity and became one of the best nines Australia have produced in a long time and 10 years later, he is still doing a great job at national level. I think the more Will develops, the more similarities he takes on with George’s game. Will controls the game really well and he offers an attacking threat as well. He is the little general on the park for Australia and his experience will be invaluable at the World Cup… In terms of my selection as a World Cup referee, it’s humbling as you are effectively representing your country as a match official. I could never have dreamed of being involved in a World Cup as a player, so to do it as a referee is a fantastic appointment, and it’s been nice to celebrate it with my family and friends.
Sport24 asked: Who else do you rate highly as the best scrumhalves today?
Nic Berry: Heading into the World Cup, the scrumhalf berth is one of the really competitive spots. In all honesty, I think the Kiwis have two of the best in Aaron Smith and TJ Perenara. I don’t think there is much separating the two. Perenara adds the element of an extra loose forward. He can muscle up, he gets turnovers and he is also a running threat. If you had to put him up north, I believe he would still be an absolute world-beater because he also suits that style of play. In terms of Smith, he boasts the best pass in world rugby and suits the style of play the All Blacks adopt. Then there’s a guy like Conor Murray, who is a real competitor and a vital component of the Irish system. From a South African perspective, there are some really good young No9s coming through at the moment. However, when it comes to a World Cup, I believe experience goes as a long way. As such, the scrumhalves with all aspects of their game covered - running, kicking and game management - are going to be the guys who get the nod heading into the big games. You can have good core skills, but what separates the best from the rest is a nine who makes the right decisions under pressure… Faf de Klerk, who is the Springbok incumbent, is like a terrier and throws his weight around. He is an absolute competitor, which is a contagious quality within a team environment. Faf inspires other guys to get stuck in as well and I am hugely impressed with him. To go as well as he did in Super Rugby is one thing, but then to take that form up north and add aspects to his game is another. When he returns, he will be a more rounded player because plying your trade up north broadens your skills. In terms of a World Cup bolter, Herschel Jantjies is absolutely exciting and had a cracking game against the Highlanders. There is no substitute for speed and he has bags of it. The 23-year-old could be lethal coming off the bench for the Springboks because he has speed off the base of the ruck and could exploit a tired defence in the second half.