Players and supporters of the Canterbury Rugby League Men’s Premiership are becoming familiar with highly-rated Blenheim-based referee Jack Feavers, who began making the eight-hour round trip to handle Monday night youth matches last year and is doing the same on Saturdays in 2023.

But Feavers’ extraordinary dedication to the whistle and countless hours commuting just to get a game of footy is not unique to his past two seasons – or even the most remarkable part of his story.

Refereeing has been integral to a phenomenal and inspiring health overhaul in recent years.

Born in southern England, Feavers moved to the rugby league heartland of England’s north at age 10. His stepdad was heavily involved in rugby league there and Feavers fell in love with the game – he remains a self-described “Hull FC tragic”, despite relocating to Wellington as a 13-year-old.

Feavers took the first steps on his refereeing path soon after the New Zealand sea change…and it was a baptism by fire he believes set him up for success.

“My first game was at Naenae Park between two open-age men’s teams in what was (Wellington’s) senior thirds,” Feavers recalls.

“It was pretty rough, tough footy – there was definitely nothing pretty about it, they smashed each other for 80 minutes.

“But I loved that, I thought it was great.

“It taught me game management at a really young age, rather than the other way – which seems to be the pathway they’re coming through now – refereeing really clean football all the time. Then they get to the point where they’re suddenly doing tough men’s games and they don’t know how to cope with it.”

Feavers excelled in the Wellington premiers competition and was a touch judge for the 2010 and 2013 grand finals, then moved to Nelson and refereed three Tasman club grand finals in his first five seasons in the region.

Despite those notable achievements, it was only a mindful decision to focus on improving his health that set Feavers on a course to becoming one of New Zealand’s top whistle-blowers.

“I didn’t really take refereeing seriously until maybe four years ago,” he reveals.

“I was massively overweight as a teenager and into my early-twenties – I’ve lost just shy of 80 kilos in the last four years – so I kind of plodded around doing club football in Wellington for the best part of 10 years.

“I moved to Nelson in 2014 when my young fella was born, I’m a single dad with an eight-year-old son that I have fulltime. We came down here and I plodded away in the (Tasman competition) as well – overweight, unfit.
“I thought then that I was a good referee – that sounds strange to say, but I thought I was doing pretty well – then I decided to change my lifestyle around 2019, lost a lot of weight and as I did that I’ve progressed to the national levels of football and the New South Wales system with SG Ball.”

Though not necessarily his ‘why’, Feavers’ passion for rugby league and refereeing had a huge role to play in his incredible weight-loss voyage.

Naturally, it helped keep him more active and to get fitter but also provided motivation when he needed it most – and the improvement in his refereeing had a compounding effect.

“Footy in Nelson-Marlborough folded in 2018, so at the start of my fitness journey in 2019 was probably the most I’d ever needed refereeing. I needed a reason, in a way, to keep going through the dark days.

“So with no footy locally I started travelling over to Wellington in 2019, 2020 and 2021 most weekends at my own expense to referee in their competition.

“When I look back, refereeing wasn’t the pusher that got me started (to lose weight) – not consciously, anyway.

“But there was a game between University and Porirua Vikings in Wellington. I was 155 kilos and the bloke who was the national referees manager at the time came over and said, ‘mate, you’ve got everything – you’re just not fit enough. If you were fit, the world would be your oyster’.

“It stuck with me through the harder, more challenging times of the weight-loss journey. I’m not sure he’d even remember the conversation – it was probably a passing comment, trying to give some who’d have an average game a bit of a tyre-pump – but it stuck with me.”

Feavers says being lighter, fitter and healthier hasn’t necessarily made him enjoy refereeing more – but it’s certainly made him better.

“I’ve always loved it, but as a big, unfit referee I always thought the games I was refereeing were so fast,” he explains.

“I’d learned all the shortcuts and the ways to get to the best positions while moving as little as I possibly could.

“Mark McCaffery, who was the refs boss in Wellington and has probably been the best person for my development, I remember him saying – and there’s a couple of guys up there whose word I treat as gospel – when you get fit, the game will become so much slower and you’ll see everything so much clearer.

“That’s so accurate. The fitter I’ve got, the flow of the game, the clearer I see things, the clearer my decision-making process is…I watched a game on YouTube that I did when I was at my biggest and thought, ‘how did I come to those decisions?’ But it was because I was under fatigue and didn’t really know what I was doing.

“Now I can just work through the process because I’m fit enough, my heartrate isn’t going at 200 beats a minute after five minutes.”

The most striking aspect of Feavers’ dedication to refereeing is the positivity and humility associated with it.

There is not even the slightest mention of the constant travel’s drain on his time, energy or resources – instead rerouting the conversation to his unbridled satisfaction in what he’s doing, the offshoot experiences he’s had as a result and his appreciation for those who have assisted him along the way.

“It was a really cool experience and I enjoyed the travel in and out of Wellington. I’ve got some great mates up there and a few of the referees are in my closest friends group, so it was awesome to get to run with them each week,” he enthuses.

“Last year I was refereeing in Wellington and sponsored by NZ MEP (Fabrications), who are now sponsoring (Canterbury’s) referees. And (NZ MEP managing director) Darren Littlewood, what a legend that bloke is, he funded all my travel last year, to Invercargill and the North Island. I’m so grateful for that, it’s a once in a million opportunity that I’ll never forget ‘Daz’ for.

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“I was refereeing club footy up there then coming down to Christchurch and doing Monday nights (at Ngā Puna Wai), the 18s and 16s grades. I guess the logic for me at that time was my pathway and to get what I wanted to achieve, to be in that SG Ball arena, was to do some of that faster, cleaner footy that you don’t get at the local premiership level. So that was invaluable and I loved it – a great standard of footy and some of the most enjoyable games.

“I’m so lucky with my employer that they promote and encourage the refereeing side, so if I say I want to go away to this tournament for a week or have an afternoon off to get to Christchurch, they’re the most supportive employer that I could ask for.

“My young fella, too, he’s definitely not a rugby league fan but we make the most of some cool road trips and I take him with me as often as I can, whether that’s Wellington, Christchurch or wherever I’m going.

“There’s some real good father-son time on those drives, there’s been a few Monday afternoons and Tuesday mornings off school. That’s invaluable in many ways and he gets to go and see different parts of the country he’d probably never otherwise see – it’s great for the two of us and we have a blast.”

As well as being named CRL’s Community Referee of the Year in 2022, referee of the tournament at the 2022 National Secondary Schools competition and controlling the 2022 South Island Men’s Championship final, the fruits of Feavers’ effort and high-quality officiating performances eventually saw him achieve one of his major goals earlier this season.

After being added to a group of referees joining in with NSWRL’s referees’ online coaching sessions – and following the Warriors’ return to Auckland and to the NSWRL’s competitions – he ran the lines for the Warriors’ SG Ball (under 19s) home games against Canterbury-Bankstown, Western Suburbs and Manly.

Despite being age-group football, the high standard and elements of professionalism presented fresh challengers for the newcomer.

“The key thing for me, and what a lot of people probably don’t realise, is the product on TV every week in the NRL, NSW Cup or SG Ball, Super League, it’s so much different to the footy that’s played in a park in New Zealand on a Saturday at two o’clock,” Feavers says.

“The rules are so different, the style of play is so different – they’re almost different sports. The first thing that stood out was how quick it was. I wear GPS when I referee and I track how far I run, my heart-rate and those sorts of metrics. I couldn’t believe how far I’d moved in that first game and how quickly I felt under fatigue.

“And under fatigue, particularly in that first game, recognising where on the field it would be a six-again (rather than) a penalty, the different restarts of play – that was a real challenge, but very enjoyable.”

Feavers was added to Canterbury Rugby League’s pool of senior grade referees in 2023 and slotted in seamlessly to the Massetti Cup – though it’s been another test to his comfort zone.

Getting familiar with a new group of players – and vice versa – has kept him on his toes.

“I love the footy in Canterbury. It’s different coming into a new area. In Wellington I’ve been there long enough that I know most of the players’ names, I know what they’re going to present most weeks, I know what the top two teams look like and what’s going to be close game and what’s not, I know what type of game I’m going into, what the local derbies are.

“I had no idea of the geography of Christchurch whatsoever. A couple of weeks ago I was appointed to Halswell versus Hornby, and when people asked what game I’d got, they sort of wince: ‘Ohhh, that’ll be tough’. I had no idea what I was going into and it was one of the tougher ones I’ve refereed for a while.

“But it’s nice in some ways, it presents a different kind of challenge. There’s some big personalities in Canterbury Rugby League. But at end of the day it’s a game of footy and I enjoy it the same as I would anywhere else.”

Becoming a top referee doesn’t happen by accident, nor can that billing be achieved without massive amounts of hard work, introspection and self-honesty.

Feavers provides a detailed insight to his unrelenting quest for improvement:

“I’m pretty process-driven, in that I make sure I know the rules and the indicators like the back of my hand because I’ve been in situations before where things have happened in games where I’ve not known what to do. I never want to be in that position again, so I want to be sure I know what the correct decision is and the correct outcome for anything that happens in a game.

“I try to be really proactive. As a referee it’s my worst nightmare to go out there and people be talking about the refereeing performance or how many penalties were given. At the end of the day, people have turned up to watch these games to watch the players – they’re not there to watch me.

“I want the players to be able to put on the best showcase that they can and present the game as good as they can, so I see it as my role to facilitate that.”

“I’m really goal-driven, so I set myself goals for every game I referee. Every month I have an area of my game I want to develop. I’m big on controlling the things I can control – appointments to certain games, I can’t control that, I have no say, so I don’t go out saying I want to referee this game or that game. It’s more around my own performance and what I expect of myself.

“There is no doubt in my mind that referees are their own harshest critics and internally we criticise each other at a much finer detail level than any player ever will. Every game I referee that’s televised, I go back and watch that for four or five hours afterwards – I’m almost reviewing it play-the-ball by play-the-ball, decision by decision. Yeah I’m being critical, but it’s not about beating myself up for getting something wrong, it’s about working how next time I’ll get the right decision.

“Liam (O’Brien), who is refereeing in Christchurch as well, is the same – we spend a lot of time together reviewing our games. I look at what my heartrate was when I made that decision, or what speed I was moving out, how far away from the ball was I? It’s a completely different level to the general spectator thinking, ‘oh, you got that one wrong’.

“That’s one thing I’d like the general public to understand: they might feel that we got one or two things wrong, but I’ll identify after every game thirty or forty things I would have done differently.”

While his immediate focus is establishing himself in the Canterbury Rugby League premiership and making incremental improvements to his performances, Feavers has some targets in his sights beyond club footy.

But again, Feavers’ gratitude for those who have helped him along the way and his admiration for referees at the top level shines through.

“The International Rugby League has a panel or an international list. Over the last couple of years as I’ve progressed through the grades, I’ve thought that’s where I’d really like to get to. I’m not stupid, I know I’m not going to referee the NRL based in New Zealand with the current format, or referee a World Cup final.

“But to have the opportunity to be around the international squad – and we’re so lucky in New Zealand to have such easy access to our international guys. In Aussie, the local park ref who’s refereeing my level of football would never see or talk to the Australian international refs. We room with ours when we go away to tournaments, they give us feedback on our games – we’re so privileged. I’ve shared their journey quite closely with them through World Cups and Test matches, so it would be really cool to be part of that.

“We’ve got three refs on the international list and they’ve all been great for me. Paki Parkinson and Joe Green have been fantastic, they review my games and give feedback, I’ve run touchlines for them, they’ve run touchlines for me. It’s just so good to be involved in footy with those sorts of people.

“Refereeing is really selfish in many ways. As a player you’re competing with 25 blokes for 17 positions for finals day. As a referee, you’re all competing for one or two games, or one rank. To have guys like that who are so selfless with their time and their advice and their effort in developing that next level down is invaluable.”

While those dreams provide an extra driving force, it is overwhelmingly Feavers’ love of rugby league and fervour for refereeing that keeps him clocking up thousands of State Highway 1 miles

Though he lives in what is famously one of New Zealand’s leading towns for sunshine hours, during summer he pines for the opportunity to control games on a rainy, wintry Saturday at Wainoni Park, as he did this weekend.

“It’s the best thing I’ve ever done. All week is centred around footy for me. At the start of the week I’m looking forward to finding out what game I’m going to get and where I’m going to be, super excited to get out on the paddock and do the game.

“I struggle during the off-season – the season is much longer than it used to be, but it seems to fly by and the off-season seems to drag and drag. I’m almost counting down the minutes till I can get a game of footy again.

“I’ve made lifelong friends. I feel like I owe rugby league a whole lot really, because it’s been that one constant in my life in many ways since I was a young fella. It’s so cool to be able to give something back to it.”

Main image photo credit: Matty Louis Photography

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