24 September 2018
King Country rugby is the best in the country, according to a Royal New Zealand Air Force officer who has been refereeing the sport for more than 40 years.
For the past three years, Squadron Leader Mike Ward, 63, has been refereeing in King Country, after buying a house in Taupo.
“The rugby there is the best rugby in the country – I haven’t had a single incident of deliberate foul play on the field in three years,” Squadron Leader Ward said.
“The college players can get a bit scratchy, but there’s never been any of the red and yellow card violence that you see elsewhere. It’s a bit like military rugby – military rugby’s great. They know they’ve got two experienced military refs on the sideline I guess.”
The Base Ohakea Executive Officer began refereeing in 1977 in Wellington when he was asked to officiate primary and high school games.
“I can’t remember how I ended up refereeing at a primary school, but I liked it. I would have been 22,” he said.
Since then he reckons he has refereed close to 3000 games, ranging from children’s matches to representative games and even the curtain-raiser to a Lions game in Manawatu between Porirua College and Feilding Agricultural High School, in 1983.
“It was a 10-all draw. I don’t remember too much of that game, it was 35 years ago. But I remember the crowd – 30,000 people in the stands was pretty impressive.”
From 1979 Squadron Leader Ward started keeping a record of the games with the teams, the score, where it was played and the grade.
He has seen plenty of changes to the rules over the years.
“Little tweaks, but the change to professional rugby has made everybody a lot harder and faster – more devious. There’s more work for the referee to do but it’s great.”
Recently, he controlled the first women’s inter-service game.
“Services rugby has finally come of age – women are where the growth is. It would be really neat now to see female referees come through. We need that.”
Military rugby players had a different camaraderie when they played, he said.
“You watch them on the field – Army, Navy, Air Force, they’re all one big team. They play hard but they respect each other. The fitness and the team work is just amazing.”
Every game had been a pleasure to referee, he said.
“It’s been fun – I’m not ready to give it up.”