World Cup Ref Relishing Club Comeback
Spectators at the Celebration-Papanui Canterbury Cup clash last Saturday may have recognised a familiar face with the whistle, as former World Cup referee Darryn Hopewell ended a 13-year hiatus to make his return to the Canterbury refereeing ranks.
But the comeback didn’t exactly go off without a couple of hitches.
“I had two pairs of boots, one that I’d had a pre-season game with and the soles came off them in the first 10 minutes,” Hopewell said.
“And I had another pair that I wore when I was at the (2000) World Cup, so they’re about 17 years old, and they fell apart after five minutes!
“I had to tape the boot to my socks, so I was basically running around in my socks for three-quarters of the game last week.”
The reserve-grade fixture was Hopewell’s first club assignment since controlling the 2004 premiers grand final – so what inspired him to get back out in the middle?
“My partner told me she was sick of me babysitting the couch every Saturday afternoon,” the 49-year-old laughed.
“Everyone at Canterbury Rugby League has been good, and (current referee) Jason Wilson has taken me under his wing.
“Most of it’s still the same, but some of the way (referees) interpret things are a bit different from when I was refereeing. Jason’s helped me put on a bit of polish, he came and watched my game the other day.”
While he may understandably be a bit rusty, Hopewell will not be lacking fitness – he regularly does the running leg in team triathlons, and recently participated in the Queen Street Mile (posting the respectable time of just over five minutes).
Hopewell’s association with rugby league refereeing goes back almost three decades. He played junior footy for Kaiapoi and Papanui, running around alongside future Kiwi Terry Hermansson for the latter, though he admits, “I was useless – I was just there to make up the names on the team card.”
“As a youngster my father used to take me to the league at the Showgrounds on Wednesday nights, and I’d be at school on Thursday half asleep.
“My dad used to work at the Kaiapoi freezing works, and back then league was pretty tough. He’d rush home on a Wednesday and say we had to go to the league because so-and-so had a fight in the freezer and they’re going to finish it on the football field. That’s what it used to be like back then.
“But the referees back then used to be so precise with their signals, and I used to stand in the backyard and do the signals, believe it or not.”
While he wasn’t destined for league stardom as a player, Hopewell was a talented speedway rider, racing against Kiwi legend Barry Briggs (who was then 50) in a national final as a 16-year-old, and representing New Zealand in a Test against USA at 19.
Hopewell first picked up the whistle in 1989, and three years later he was refereeing premier grade matches.
He controlled the 1996 CRL grand final between Hornby and Halswell before taking a couple of years off, but a return to the field in ’99 led to his career highlight – a place at the 2000 Rugby League World Cup.
“I went over with (the likes of) Bill Harrigan and Steve Clark; there were three Kiwis, three Aussies, three Englishmen and one from France, and I got referee the games in France,” he recalled.
Hopewell refereed two pool matches – a Tonga side including Willie Mason and Duane Mann thrashing South Africa 66-18 in Paris, and the Adrian Lam- and Marcus Bai-inspired Papua New Guinea’s 16-0 win over South Africa in Toulouse.
“(After that) I had about three NRL trials and the Aussies came and looked at me, and they said I was good, but there was 200 of me in Australia they reckoned.
“Now they don’t really even look at us (Kiwi refs) but I was lucky to get a couple of trials, and I refereed the Warriors in a couple of pre-season games.”
Following another break in 2003, Hopewell controlled the ’04 premiers decider between Riccarton and Linwood – and he’s determined to handle another grand final, more than 20 years after his first.
“My aim for 2017 and 2018 is to get another one, and I don’t hide that fact,” he said.
“I haven’t come back to it half-throttle. I’ve got to get my feet on the ground, and I’m very grateful to Jason for giving me a hand, but I’ll be fit, I’ll be prepared and I feel I’ve still got something to offer.”
Grassroots rugby league is crying out for more referees throughout New Zealand, and Hopewell has a simple message for anyone contemplating getting involved.
“Just get in and give it a go. Canterbury Rugby League are very supportive.
“What I’d like to do… if there’s a young fella with a bit of promise that I can buddy up with, I would take a lot of pleasure from seeing them come up through the grades and get to international football like I did.”
While it often seems a thankless job, Hopewell says refereeing is what you make it – and with the right attitude, respect will be reciprocated from players and the crowd.
“I made a couple of mistakes on Saturday, but the crowd didn’t say anything. The players and coaches came up to me and said it was great to have me back.
“(It’s about) being consistent. Someone said to me once, ‘you must know the rules really well to be a referee at the World Cup’.
“But it was more about how I spoke to players, because you can then get the respect of the players.
“I made a mistake at the World Cup and I said to Adrian Lam, ‘look, I’m sorry, I’ve missed that cold’, and he was very good about it. Because we do miss things, and I always put my hand up.”
With that sort of positive outlook, you wouldn’t bet against the veteran fulfilling his ambition of refereeing another CRL grand final…boot malfunctions notwithstanding.
*Anyone interested in becoming a rugby league referee should contact Canterbury Rugby League.