December 15, 2021

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Amid the myriad gongs handed out for excellence in the current calendar year at the recent 2021 Canterbury Rugby League awards, one unassuming individual received special recognition for quarter of a century of high standards and commitment to our game.

Gary Smallridge cut his teeth in the CRL premier refereeing ranks 25 years ago, dedicating close to half of his life to one of the most demanding and important (and often maligned and thankless) jobs in rugby league.

“I was somewhat surprised by the award as I have been plodding along all these years and nothing’s been said,” Smallridge says of his CRL Special Acknowledgement Award.

“I try and keep under the radar by not going to these types of things – the only other awards night I’ve attended was in Canterbury Rugby League’s centenary year. I would love to see others recognised as well, as 10 years is a milestone – and the average career length – while Keith Bull recently sneaked away after being involved in the game for 50 years.”

The 59-year-old got his start in refereeing in one of Australia’s rugby league heartlands. Smallridge takes up the story of how he first picked up the whistle:

“I was playing lower grades in Brisbane when a guy I worked with talked to me about trying out when he found out I refereed touch football. I went along and they had over 100 referees turn up on a Tuesday training.

“I had to pass a written exam and then-current premiership referee Eddie Ward asked me five oral questions and I got my ticket. I was refereeing 13- and 14-year-old grades and touch judging premier football in the weekends. I did a couple of seasons and then returned to NZ in 1995 and decided to continue.

“I believe that couple of seasons in Brisbane gave me a good grounding. When I turned up in Christchurch they saw some potential in me, and I was fast-tracked doing my first premier grade in ‘96. Looking back, I think I’d have struggled to make premiers in Brisbane due to the numbers.”

When asked how he has maintained the motivation to continue refereeing at this level for so long, Smallridge provides an answer straight out of the rugby league cliché handbook, echoing countless others whose craving for a Saturday afternoon footy fix bubbles to the surface as each winter rolls around.

“You’re a long time retired,” he says.

“I still love the game and having the best seat in the house helps. Unfortunately, there can be a bit of politics involved around appointments and rankings, and I nearly gave it away when it started affecting family and friends.

“But I’ve tried to take the attitude of just getting on with the job I’ve been given. That has helped, but at semi-final time you always get the urge to go all the way.

“Watching teams and individuals develop over the years has been one of the best parts of refereeing in this competition for so long. I loved watching the likes of Riccarton, Kaiapoi and Papanui winning their premierships over the regular big guns, while also seeing the careers of local players like Lewis Brown and Corey Lawrie develop.

“The challenging part is always going to come back to how you deal with individuals questioning your integrity. I’ve always been able to put it down to my passion for the game at the time; unfortunately there are some who can take (criticism) a step too far, but it’s also a great feeling when a spectator acknowledges that you handled a hard game well.”

Smallridge has been something of a refereeing bridesmaid during his Canterbury Rugby League tenure, but he has controlled three premier Grand Finals – the first back in 2002, which saw Riccarton Knights claim their maiden title with a 54-14 rout of Linwood Keas.

Underlining his consistency and reliability over a long period, Smallridge’s most recent appointment to the biggest game on the CRL calendar came just four months ago, handed the duties for the 2021 Grand Final at Ngā Puna Wai. His cool-headed temperament in a pressure-cooker environment contributed to a match fought on a knife’s edge between archrivals Hornby Panthers and Linwood Keas being one of the great modern deciders.

“I’ve always started a season with the goal of a Grand Final and to do three is a highlight, however my record for Gore Cup finals – usually the second-best ref – will probably never be broken.

“I believe my style of reffing has led to me being a consistent local referee, but I didn’t have that edge required to go the extra step up. In saying that, I have had a few trips around the country and games that stand out would be Russia playing Canterbury (in 2004) and Canterbury versus Wellington for the 100-year anniversary.

“Another was Shirley and Woolston in the nineties when it was Black Power versus Mongrel Mob played out at Eaton Field at Paparua Prison, while for a different reason a Kaiapoi versus Sydenham match where I sent all 26 players off was particularly memorable.”

Recruiting and retaining referees remains one of the greatest challenges in grassroots rugby league. For every Gary Smallridge, there are dozens who walk away from the whistle for one reason or another.

But the commitment and passion of a dedicated few ensures the refereeing vocation – and consequently the game – continues to subsist, if only barely.

“The game in Canterbury has been so lucky to have the likes of the Arneson brothers and Lightfoot family who kept the Referees Association going without too much bother,” Smallridge explains.

“There have always been the same issues in rugby league, but it should be about how we make the game better – not about what people can get out of the game. The referees have lost so much experience over the last few years with retirements and people walking away, feeling aggrieved in some way.

“We are now struggling to provide coverage for every game even though there is now a clear pathway to higher honours. Instead of having elections we are now pleading for someone to step up into the leadership roles.”

Smallridge has a simple yet poignant message for anyone contemplating getting involved in refereeing:

“Go down to a kid’s game and tell me if they deserve an adult to put in the time to support them while they are enjoying themselves.

“If you want to stay or become involved in sport then being a match official is certainly a good place to start. I never went anywhere in my own league career but have now been involved in Grand Finals and representative games through refereeing.”

Former NRL stars such as Henry Perenara and Luke Patten have made the shift to the match official ranks at the elite level in recent times.

Meanwhile, Halswell premiership-winning player and coach Darrell Coad is one of the latest additions to the CRL refereeing ranks – a trend Smallridge believes could be an invaluable stream for grassroots footy to tap into.

“It’s the best thing that can happen in our game,” Smallridge asserts.

“Knowledge about what players are thinking or going through during matches allows a better feel for the game. A sin-bin or send-off can cost a team dearly but a quiet word in the ear of a player on the edge from someone who has been there can have a calming effect.

“(The late) Darryl Hawker is one who is missed in the referee ranks – and the game in general – as he had performed of every role that the game had to offer and would share that knowledge to everyone involved.”

New Zealand Rugby League and its affiliates have increasingly put measures in place to make the game a safer and more hospitable environment for match officials.

The message that referees are human and make errors and analyse their own performance to the extent any player does cannot be understated.

“If a referee can finish a game and they are not talking about him then he’s done a good job,” Smallridge says.

“I’ve probably been lucky in my career that I can’t think of any incidents where I have been intimidated or threatened to the extent that I have thought about giving it away, but unfortunately too many volunteer referees have.

“If a referee is out there trying his best, then our mistakes shouldn’t cost a team a game. I’ve lost count of the times when I checked the 10 metres outside me and missed the knock-on in the play-the-ball. It’s not a nice feeling but it’s a common mistake.

“It is good to see that we are trying to look after match officials in all sports but again we need to look at ourselves as a society when it comes to violence and intimidation for perceived mistakes during a game.

“Twenty-five years has flown by and I have enjoyed every minute, but I don’t think I’ve ever had the perfect game. No one is harder on a referee than himself and so it is always good to get assessed or graded by someone who knows the game. Some of my best gradings though were with people who know the game – Chris Baxter, ‘Jigsy’ (Brent Ringdahl), Frank Endacott – over a beer in the clubrooms after a game. Knowing what players and coaches go through certainly helped my game but they, and spectators, probably need to know what we go through as well.”

So how much longer can we expect to see Smallridge blowing time on, marshalling the 10 metres and pointing to the spot after a tryscoring movement at Leslie Park, Murphy Park, Linwood Park and Ngā Puna Wai?

“I know I’m on my last legs – well, knees actually – and have had a retirement plan in action for a while now, but I’m still enjoying it.

“I’ve been saying ‘one last year’ for the last 10 but wanted to lose my spot to someone coming up the ranks, so they must fight for it – unfortunately they keep retiring before me! I retired from representative football years ago and although I want to see others develop there is nothing better than being asked to control a representative fixture still, so I keep doing them as well if appointed.

“I’m 60 in September next year, so if the goal is to do premiers at 60 then that means two more seasons – but is that good for the game?”

Reflecting on the past 25 years, Smallridge takes the opportunity to thank the myriad people who have aided his Canterbury Rugby League refereeing odyssey.

“Firstly, there’s Jacquoi (Smallridge), who at 10 years old followed me around to games and trainings as I was a solo father for a while – it would be all quiet forming a scrum or something and I would hear ‘come on, Gary’.

“Also the Arneson and Baxter brothers, the Lightfoot family, Jim Stokes, Neville Pritchard, Steve Toms, Steve Martin, Jason Wilson and the many more CRLRA members; current and former CRL employees over the years, especially Duane Fyfe and Tracy Fleet; and the touch judges, match managers and ball boys who have assisted me during every game.
“A special and everlasting thanks to the Blackler family, especially Ken, who as a former referee was a great and loyal supporter, trainer and assessor to me while also giving his daughter’s hand in marriage to me.

“And Sharyn – we met after a league game and you have supported me through the last 22 years of my career. Sorry about the lawns and the housekeeping during the winter but I promise there’s not long to go now!

“Lastly thanks to all involved in the great game of rugby league – it’s been an honour and a privilege to be involved. Thank you one and all.”