My Test match debut

Photo: Paul Williams

Paul Williams for On the Mark     19 Dec 2016     Photo: Paul Williams

The first three days of the Northern Tour were spent at The Lensbury Hotel attending the World Rugby Referees meeting where I found myself in a very strange position, standing alongside the best referees in the world!  This meeting was a chance for a refresh and refocus on the priority areas of the game before heading off and controlling our appointments during the November Test window.  I was fortunate enough to be appointed to three games during this three-week tour, the first being AR1 for Barbarians v South Africa at Wembley Stadium, my Test debut between Romania and USA in Bucharest and finally AR1 for the match between England and Fiji at Twickenham Stadium.

My mindset for these three appointments plus the three days in camp with the other referees was to ‘expect the unexpected’ and be ‘adaptable to change’.  Heading to Romania, a country that I knew nothing about, for my first Test match and with the knowledge that Test rugby was something very different to that of Super Rugby or Mitre 10 Cup, I knew that this was going to be another exciting opportunity in my career.

I arrived in Bucharest, Romania on Wednesday evening (four days out from game day) and was greeted by a very excited and energetic Vlad Lordachescu, their number one referee.  The trip across town was…interesting.  Let’s just say we wouldn’t have looked out of place if we were in a game of Grand Theft Auto as we ran lights, cut other drivers off, used the horn more times than the indicators and left everyone else in the dust of our Renault hire car!  Thankfully I made it to the hotel in one piece and nervously released the seatbelt I had been clutching onto since we left the airport!  As Vlad helped me with my bags, which were now sprawled across the back seat, I asked him “do people always drive like that here?” … “Welcome to Romania” he said with a smile!

While the country itself may seem a little bit ‘out of the box’ to what we are used to here in little old New Zealand, one area they do not fall down on is their hospitality.  From the moment I landed, to when I flew out five days later, I was treated exceptionally well.  On Thursday I was given a tour of Bucharest and a chance to inhale the sights and sounds that this unique city had to offer, before being invited to dinner by the now President of Romania Rugby and former stalwart of the national side, Haralambie Dumitras.  

It was a slightly unnerving feeling sitting down with the USA coaching staff across the table and the Romanians to my right before my very first international fixture at this level.  Even though this was a slightly different evening to my ‘Subway and in bed by 9pm’ policy I would usually adopt back home before game day, if I was going to stick to my philosophy of being ‘adaptable to change’ then I was just going to have to roll with it!  Considering what was on the line for both teams the following day, it was a very relaxed atmosphere, the company was good fun and above all it was a good chance to meet the coaches in a less pressurised environment.

Game day: Romania v USA, 12 November 2016, Stadionul Arcul de Triumf in Bucharest, Romania

Respect the occasion but control what I need to in order to do my job!  I have read about other sports people in similar situations who try and block out the hype and the magnitude of the event to focus on the job at hand, but for me I wanted to absorb all of this and use it as fuel for my performance.  Standing on the pitch at the Arcul de Triomph in front of 5,000 (sell out) vocal Romanians passionately belting out their national anthem was an emotional moment for me, more so because I took this time to reflect on my career so far and the influential people in my life that had helped me reach this milestone.  My first real sense of relief came as soon as the anthems were over because despite all the differences I had encountered up to that point, I knew that the next 80 minutes were where I felt most at home and was what I considered to be ‘normal’.

The game itself was a real test and everything I had anticipated it would be! The contact was ferocious, the intensity through the roof and the atmosphere suggested that this was a game with much more to play for than an provincial rugby trophy or a Super Rugby Championship title. For these men it was the honour of playing for your country and making sure that you represented the jersey and all those that had donned it before them!

A truly amazing experience and one which I will have etched in my memory for a lifetime!  An honour to represent my family, my country and be named New Zealand Test Match Referee #69.