Wagga referee Ben Whitby reached a significant milestone recently when he officiated in his 350th game for Group 9 Rugby League.
Whitby ran onto Gundagai’s Anzac Park to take charge in the round 12 clash between the Tigers and Dragons to reach the landmark figure, and in doing so, joined a rare list of local referees.
A former football player himself, Whitby stated that his involvement in refereeing was influenced by family connections and the sport at the junior level needing some help.
“My brother was refereeing at the time, and I guess like a lot of siblings, you want to do what they do,” Whitby said.
“I was also playing footy, and played through till I was about 16 or 17, but the Wagga junior league were short on referees, and they got commissioned to try and get referees as young as twelve, and that was the age I was, at the time.”
A well liked and respected member of the Group 9 Referees Association, Whitby explained that the levels he has reached were not necessarily part of a plan.
He was just like any young kid, enjoying his sport and looking for a way to earn a few extra dollars.
“It sort of just happened over a period of time; I never did it with the intent of going anywhere with it, or refereeing first grade, I was just happy refereeing each game as it came,” Whitby said.
After refereeing 350 games in all grades in Group 9, Ben’s focus has now turned to goals that will add to his already impressive resume.
Experience in representative matches, such as Samoa versus NSW Country, and refereeing the historic return of the famous Maher Cup in 2021, are all pointers to the local referee’s credentials and standing in the game.
Whitby looks to the rest of the 2023 Group 9 Rugby League season with a view of refereeing in the first grade semi-finals, and a real ambition of one day being appointed to officiate in a first grade grand final.
The pace of a modern-day work week, and balancing his commitments to Group 9 have the effect of making time pass quickly, but Whitby still remembers his debut first grade match clearly.
“It was Kangaroos v Brothers in 2011 at McDonalds Park,” Ben said.
“I think that Roos won that game 26-16.
“I was pretty nervous, more nervous than usual. We got the appointments on Tuesday night and then I had all week to think about it.”
While Whitby reflected on that debut match and the journey that followed, he was quick to point to the people who had helped him along the way, and the methods he had employed to improve his refereeing.
“My brother was always a big help, and famous names in Group 9, like Bernie Nix, Tony Fletcher and Scotty Muir, have always been very supportive, as have all the past and current refs that I have been involved with,” Whitby said.
“For me, it’s the mateship and comradery with us as referees.
“We see ourselves, basically, as another club within Group 9. We’re a team out there; we work together, especially in first grade, to get things right and make the correct decisions.”
As in any role, the highs are often met with low points, and Whitby spoke openly about times when he thought about giving things away, and the support that kept him in the game.
“I think the most challenging aspect of refereeing is the mental side of it,” he said.
“It’s not a specific moment, but self-doubt can really drag you down mentally, which affects your ability on the field. I’ve had a few occasions where I’ve just had enough of it and thought about giving it away, but the support of the refereeing family, and the wider rugby league community, always reminds me of why I love this game so much.”
As a football fan, Ben gets the best seat in the house on game day. He spoke about the quality of players in Group 9 and the skill level that is on hand in each round of the premiership, and he threw up a few footballers who are at the top of the talent pool.
“In the backs, it’s Latrell Siegwalt,” Whitby said. “His pace and ability to break a game open is amazing. As far as the forwards go, I would say Temora’s Kris Rands. He is tireless and an absolute workhorse.”
Whitby has won several awards, including Group 9 referee of the year in 2019 and the association’s referee of the year in 2018, but it is rugby league’s continued support of community that he holds higher than any personal accolades.
He cited the recent all abilities match between Gundagai and Wagga Brothers, as an example.
“I refereed a half and played a half, and to be out there with all the smiles and fun everyone had, especially when I got sin-binned, reminded me of why we do any role in this great game.”