WALLA WALLA — On a Whitman College field still moist from the Saturday morning mist, eight men readied themselves to make the switch from player to official for what some say is probably the toughest organized team sport.
And the officials of the sport, also know as rugby referees, have to be just as tough and prepared as the players if they are going to keep themselves and the players safe, said Jim Kautz of the Pacific Northwest Rugby Referee Society.
“Couple of years ago we had a referee in a match and he ended up with four broken ribs and a punctured lung,” Kautz said.
For several hours on Saturday, Kautz — who has refereed rugby for 39 years — taught the eight men who came from as far as Boise, Portland and San Francisco.
Why did they travel so far to learn to about a sport they already knew how to play?
For the most part, the participants had four main reasons for switching to referee.
“To get a better understanding of the game,” Whitman College rugby player Noah Teller said. Another reason he said was financial.
“For a lot of us, the (course) fee gets waived for the (rugby) class.”
Rugby referees can also make about $45-$55 a game, Kautz said.
Another reason, especially for the older players, had more to do with injuries and finding a way to stay in the sport without playing it.
“For a lot of us it’s because we got too hurt to play,” Jacob Carlson said.
Then he shared how one time a player grabbed him by the collar and head butted his teeth to the tune of a $3,000 dental bill.
The other injuries shared by players included broken bones and torn cartridges.
Hearing their litany of wounds, it was hard to believe the famous English saying that compares soccer and rugby.
“Soccer is a gentle game played by ruffians. Rugby is a rough game played by gentlemen,” Kautz said
It is because of its roughness that one of the main purposes for a rugby referee is to keep the game safe, Kautz said, adding that the referee also keeps the game moving.
The very nature of the game also keeps the referee moving.
In rugby there is only one main referee on the field of play.
In 15-man rugby, the game is divided into two 20-minute halves, with the referee rarely stopping the clock.
The result is that a rugby referee will often run more than five miles in one game just trying to keep up with the action, Kautz said.
In larger leagues, there are usually two associate referees on the sidelines who primarily make out-of-bounds and foul-play calls, he added.
Smaller leagues usually don’t have associate referees. And often those leagues are hard pressed to get even one main referee because there is currently a shortage of rugby officials.
With the return of rugby to the Olympics in 2016, the sport will most likely grow more popular and more referees will be needed in the future.
This shortage of referees was another reason that eight men were willing to travel, learn and take back their new skills to their own rugby fields.
Kautz added one other notable difference with rugby, one that involves referees and players on both sides of the field.
“The (American) football teams, after the game they all split and they don’t talk to each other. In rugby after the games they all get together. Even the ref is invited,” Kautz said.
To learn more about being a rugby referee visit the Pacific Northwest Rugby Referees Society website at pnrrs.org.