This time two years ago, Toby Foley was pulling on Marist Saints-Papanui’s No.9 jersey every Saturday as the club embarked on a memorable charge to the ISC Canterbury Cup title – but fast-forward to 2023 and you’ll see him with the whistle in the same grade, or running the touchlines in the Massetti Cup.

Foley made the transition to refereeing immediately after calling time on his rugby league playing days, cutting his teeth in youth grades in 2022 and becoming one of the freshest members of Canterbury Rugby League’s NZ MEP Fabrications-backed group of match officials this season.

“Last year I was a bit of a part-time ref, I did some kids games and stepped up for the occasional (senior) game but this is my first year fulltime doing seniors games,” Foley, who was named Open Grade Youth Referee of the Year at the 2022 CRL Awards, says.

“I got approached by one of the referee managers and he thought I’d be a good fit. I wanted to keep up the fitness and stay involved in the game … (and it’s) a bit of development and learning.”

Auckland born-and-bred, Foley is product of the famous Glenora Bears club. He moved to Christchurch in 2013, later joining Papanui Tigers.

The Tigers’ 2021 Premier Reserves merger with the Saints saw Foley feature in the epic 6-2 grand final victory over Northern Bulldogs – an unforgettably tense and dramatic decider, superbly controlled by referee Jordan Chand – in his last rugby league game as a player.

As well as progressing in the CRL refereeing ranks and juggling a busy job in construction and home life with young kids, Foley is still putting his body on the line in the local Australian Rules competition. The Canterbury representative is a stalwart of the Christchurch Bulldogs club, winning four CAFL grand finals and the premiership’s 2020 best and fairest award.

That vast and ongoing experience has helped Foley adapt to – even thrive on – the heat of the battle as a referee.

“I love it – obviously you cop some criticism and players get heated on the field and emotions fly, but that part of it I quite enjoy, because it’s just people management really,” he explains.

“I’ve had ninety-nine percent positive interactions with people so far, so it’s been good.”

While he describes any unsolicited on-the-run advice from players as water off a duck’s back, Foley – a feisty and passionate competitor with the footy in hand rather than the whistle – admits his experiences as a referee so far will have an impact on his on-field demeanour when the AFL season rolls around again in August.

“It’ll change my approach I think – now I’ll be a bit more empathetic of what (umpires) are dealing with during a game.

“But you feel a bit more educated about how to deal with refs as a player, too.”

Still green in terms of refereeing experience, Foley is in the thick of a steep learning curve.

Every weekend is another lesson in his officiating education, gradually improving on the myriad facets controlling a game of rugby league entails.

“I’m definitely still finding my style,” he says.

“I had a bit of an idea about how it would go and what I’d be like, but as you get into it you realise there’s a lot more to it. So I’m always developing and fine-tuning (my) approach.

“Staying conscious of your positioning (is one of the most challenging aspects), so not finding yourself floating in no-man’s land. Getting yourself into the position to always make your best call.”

Foley highlighted the support network and mentoring provided within the NZ MEP Fabrications refereeing group as crucial to making his rapid transition much smoother as a relative novice.

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He also implores any prospective match officials to take the plunge if they are weighing up whether to get involved.

“(The support) is excellent – really, really good. We’ve got a great team of guys there that help each other out.

“If you’re thinking about it, just do it. The way I saw it was, if I didn’t like it or it wasn’t for me, I could chuck it in – but you don’t know until you try.”

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