On the eve of his 50th game as a first grade Southern Inland referee, Brendon Reynolds has plenty to reflect on.
The former Dubbo Rhinos and Eastern Suburbs player spent 20 years on the paddock before swapping his mouth guard for a whistle and beginning life as a match official.
It’s a change that’s seen him preside over almost 200 games across Southern Inland and Central West since 2009, including last year’s second grade grand final in Leeton.
Sadly, Reynolds is part of a dying breed.
Declining referee numbers across Southern Inland have been a talking point this season with a swathe of key departures and Reynolds is seeing fewer players make the transition from player to match official.
“As a career player, I only know of two guys in Central West and one in Southern Inland who are giving back to the game as referees,” Reynolds said.
“That’s a very small percentage and it shows how hard it is to attract players to become referees.
“In Wagga, we lost around four referees early on this year … and while we’ve got 13 on the books, we’re lucky to have five or six each week.”
The exact reasons are unclear but Reynolds believes the lack of players “giving back” through refereeing comes down to one simple fact.
“In my opinion, developing new referees is difficult in the area ... and it’s probably a historical thing where people don’t really want to do the job,” he said.
“As a referee, you’re at the centre of attention and you’re getting yelled at, so it takes a thick skin, a bit of composure and some maturity.
“It can be a thankless task sometimes, particularly when there’s 30 testosterone-fuelled blokes in the middle of the paddock.”
Reynolds suggested a “lack of incentive” for young prospects could be a factor in the region’s “referee drought” and proposed clubs offer their services to help the cause.
“Young blokes like Mitch Dwyer who would rather referee than play are one-in-a-million but they get snapped up by places like Canberra, so I think clubs need to take ownership of this and send people to do refereeing courses,” he said.
“We had a similar issue in Central West a few years back with declining numbers and we got clubs to send two people to do CTA (club to appoint) courses.
“Those got us out of trouble, but then it’s also about the next step and having a succession plan for referees.”
Southern Inland competition and rugby services manager Jack Heffernan was clear to distinguish the governing body from the Southern Inland Rugby Referees Association (SIRRA) but insisted groundwork to develop coaches and referees in the region was ongoing.
“We ran a course here in May that 30 people from across the region came to attend,” Heffernan said.
“Of those people who attended, 10 were under 15-years-old.
“Moving forwards, we’re trying to broaden where we host these events to make sure we get as many people as possible involved.”
For Reynolds, it’s just a case of finding the right people and making them stick.
“How do we fix this problem? I don’t know, if we’re honest,” he said.
“Maybe we start paying referees like other codes? It’s a step, but I don’t want to go down the path of officials being paid to be there.
“Sure, it might entice young people to get involved, but what’s that encouraging?”
Ultimately, Reynolds is in favour of seeing greater support from zone management and better education around the rugby community with regard to the current state of referee numbers.
“We need to be better at planning thinking about the long term,” he said.
“It’s about succession and attracting new people that will stay and give back to rugby.”
“We’ve struggled for numbers this year and i think if we had any injuries, we would’ve really been in trouble.”
For more information about getting involved in refereeing, visit the SIRRA website here.
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