The world of professional sport is cut throat. Very few make it there, even fewer make a career out of it.
For every player and official that runs out on the weekend their every movement and decision is under a microscope.
And while players are often well-written about whether they have a good game or a poor game, no one is watched more closely, yet praised so little than the referee.
But when a mistake is made by the person in the middle holding the whistle, they can be the focus of attention for days, weeks or even months.
Just ask Ben Cummins after the 2019 grand final. Or Matt Cecchin following the 2017 Rugby League World Cup
Sure, their mistakes can impact games in key moments, but at the end of the day they are human. Much like the players they officiate, they can have good games and bad games.
But when’s the last time you heard someone congratulating a rugby league referee for their performance?
Still, there remain men and women willing to put their hand up to take control of matches from under 5s to the NRL and NRLW.
One of them took to the field with either a whistle or flag in his hand 411 times.
But when his time was up, there was no fanfare. He didn’t even get to referee a final game in the NRL.
“The decision was made for me,” says retired NRL referee Gavin Badger when asked about the end of his career.
“I just wasn’t offered a contract for 2021. We are only on yearly contracts with the refs and halfway through 2019 I was told there was no contract for me beyond 2020.”
The end to his career stung.
Badger had spent 18 years in the NRL, starting his career in 2003. He became just the fifth referee to pass 300 first grade games in 2017, behind Bill Harrigan, Col Pearce, Shayne Hayne and Steve Clark.
2003 saw the end of Bill Harrigan’s career, an NRL competition with 15 teams, and Nathan Brown becoming the youngest first grade coach in history at the age of 29.
Badger’s career had spanned the likes of Cameron Smith, Cooper Cronk, Billy Slater, Jonathan Thurston and Benji Marshall. It caught the end of Brad Fittler’s and the start of Kalyn Ponga’s.
He tells RLM that he wasn’t disappointed in being told that younger referees had passed him, just that he was never given the chance to truly say goodbye to the game he had spent close to two decades officiating.
“What I was most disappointed with, was how the back end was handled. I never got an opportunity to referee my last game because we came back out of COVID, we went back to one referee and I didn’t get an opportunity in the middle in that whole time.
“And I just felt that it would have been really nice in the last round when there was a couple of games that had no bearing on semi-finals to be given one last opportunity to do it before it was all gone,” says Badger.
Speaking to him, Gavin Badger comes across as you’d expect. A bonafide rugby league nerd. A man who loves the game and who would love to spend every moment of his life around it.
So despite the refereeing door closing, rugby league was always going to be a part of Badger’s future.
“I was virtually given a full time role at New South Wales Rugby League as soon as I came out of refereeing. I had been working part-time at New South Wales for a little bit and then they offered me a full time role. My first gig at NSW was going on one of Freddy’s hogs tours,” he explains.
“Then off the back of that got involved with a couple of footy sides doing some stuff with the Wests Tigers, being involved with the Indigenous All Stars team and then the Shield winning NSW Blues team and the NSW Sky Blues women’s team.
“Some amazing opportunities to be around some amazing people, on coaching staffs and seeing how players do stuff at that level. Although COVID ruined a lot of people’s year, I pretty much got blessed with some of the opportunities that I got given.”
Following that, and a chat with Wests Tigers head coach Michael Maguire, Badger began a new role with the club at the start of 2021.
What we see in a game, and even listen to with Sports Ears is really only a fragment of the communication going on between the referees and players.
Cameron Smith was often joked about as being an extra on field referee because of the way he could work with them.
But rugby league is a sport where even the slightest advantage can have large impacts. And teams and captains that effectively communicate with the official in the middle, can sometimes find themselves on the end of the odd favourable call or reduce the number of penalties they concede.
This isn’t because being nice to a referee means they’ll call the game differently. It can mean that players can better understand when a referee is getting frustrated, or know when a player may be on the verge of being sin binned or penalised.
Badger says what he’s doing for the Tigers isn’t extraordinary, but it could be a slight advantage for the team in the season ahead.
“There are many facets to what I do. A lot of it is around creating positive interactions. Referees are human and they have human response to things and there is unconscious bias in everything that everyone does,” Badger explains.
“You have a bad experience with a particular thing, whether it be a particular food item or a particular person, so every time you are around that person you sort of start to have that negative reaction to it.
“So if we can build better relationships as a club with the match officials, hopefully some of those decisions made on the spot seem to fall our way.”
His job sees him refereeing training scrimmages, providing advice to the coaching staff during matches, while also answering questions that players often have about the rules.
“You don’t realise how many players have questions about the rules and are not sure. People who are involved in the game their whole life don’t have a great grasp on a lot of the rules.
“I’m always there for a chat with them and I just assist at scrimmages when we’re training and then have a chat with the players afterwards.”
With rule changes coming thick and fast in recent seasons and clubs scrambling to keep up, there’s every chance they will be looking to enlist the help of a recently retired referee.
“The game’s ever evolving now and the way the game is officiated changes a lot depending on who’s in charge at that top level and what they want the game to be.
“It only takes to be off your game a couple of percent or miss something and you can get beat by 30 or 40 with how the momentum is in the game now. You see good sides get beat by big scores,” explains Badger.
“So anything to get that little bit of an edge is massive and there’s plenty of other clubs around, Newcastle have someone there, the Roosters had Chris James there for a few years, Manly had people at certain times and other clubs have started to inquire.
“I’ve had a couple of clubs contacting me asking me if I had some contacts around some people to get involved to do it for them as well.”
Changes to the laws of the game are just part and parcel of professional sport. Whether it’s the NRL, EPL, AFL or NFL, each code tinkers with its own rules.
Sometimes it’s in reaction to something controversial that’s happened on the field, other times it’s looking at trying to evolve the game.
Rugby league in Australia was once unlimited tackles with defensive teams lining up behind the ruck similar to how rugby union still works today.
These days, the NRL has moved quickly on rule changes, which many have considered ill-conceived.
While the majority of the focus has been on how players and coaches would adapt, the referees were the ones charged virtually overnight with implementing new rules and interpretations.
But according to Badger, that wasn’t much of an issue. The bigger problem was the change from two referees to one referee. And he’s probably one of the best placed to comment, given he started his career during the single referee era.
Out of the referees still involved in the game when he retired, only he, Ben Cummins, Ashley Klein and Matt Cecchin had previously refereed in the NRL on their own.
Badger isn’t here to re-litigate the number of officials being present on the field, but he does provide some insight into the changes that had to occur in how the game was adjudicated.
“I’m a fan of the two referee system in some form. I think, you know, when we came back out of COVID and went to one referee, not only did we do that, we changed a lot of rules and made the game quicker and made it a lot harder for the referee in the middle.
“The biggest gripe, I think, was everyone was saying, well, the referees are inconsistent, in two different referees, you get two different interpretations. I don’t agree with that. Because the referees are full time and they trained together. They are highly skilled. There’s not a big variance in how the referees interpret stuff.
“It’s harder on the players and the coaches than it is on the referees. Because that’s why the referees are NRL referees and not reserve grade referees. because they can adapt to change really quickly.”
The presence of the assistant referee in the middle allowed a sharing of responsibilities, with fewer penalties around the ruck being missed.
“So for me just having that extra set of eyes out the back around all the stuff so you know, the crusher tackle that’s come into the game now the assistant referee assisted a lot on that, behind the ruck and trying to avoid that.”
While Badger doesn’t call for a full return to the two referee system, he is open to an extra official being on the field even if they don’t have a whistle.
“I’d really love to see us have someone standing behind the ruck to assist in that. Whether they have a whistle in their hand or not doesn’t really matter. But just to have an extra set of eyes out there, because the game is so quick and the players are so good at working little things in the ruck that an extra set of eyes would help.
“So I think you know, not only did we speed the game up we lost the resources, which made it harder for the referees, then we changed the laws.”
As previously touched on, the law changes themselves were perhaps more challenging for players and coaches than the referees.
Unfortunately in some respects, referees were somewhat used to being informed of rule changes at the last moment.
“For the first ever year of the NRL Nines in Auckland. We flew over as a group on the Thursday, the game started on a Saturday. We did not get the rules until late Friday night,” Badger says.
“11pm on Friday night, the games are starting on Saturday. And there were some major rule changes, there was only four tackles not six, that’s a big thing for the referee to adjust to. Over that weekend there was not an issue with the law changes, everyone adapted really quickly.”
In many ways, Badger has also adapted from being a referee to now being on the coaching staff of a club.
“We jump up and down on the other side of the fence at decisions that go against us here and there for some of my career now with the Tigers. But if you break it down, there are minimal errors by one of our referees in the game, and it’s because they are so good at what they do.”
End of an era
Following Badger into retirement after the 2021 season was fellow veteran Matt Cecchin.
Like Badger, Cecchin’s contract also wasn’t renewed.
“Matt Cecchin just enjoyed the footy. It’s a shame that Matt’s not running around. He was in the same sort of boat that I was, with people who thought that he didn’t have the value that he once had.
“He wasn’t offered a contract and he’s out of there. But he loved every minute of it. He would have a lot of fun in his last year. He had a lot of fun.”
Asking Badger about whether or not some referees were favoured over others, he says that the job is subjective and not everyone is going to be happy at the end of the day.
“Refereeing is subjective, you know what I mean. You can have someone watch a game, and then say the referee was the best they’d ever seen. And someone on the other side of the field say it was the worst refereeing performance they’ve ever seen.
“For me, and I know for many others, I’d just turn up every week, and try to do my best and then hoped that someone liked it at the end of the game, and I got another go next week.”
Reflecting on his career, Badger comes across as grateful for getting to do something he loved and enjoyed for so long.
“Just the standout thing is just all the fun I had, and it wasn’t always on the field. You know, I mean, it’s just, I’ve got so many memories of so many good things that happened over a long period of time and people I’ve met, friends I’ve made that are lifelong friends.
“I’m a rugby league nerd, like I love the game. And I’ve been around it since I was three years old.
“I actually steal a quote from David Fairleigh. He says his biggest win out of the game is that he can go to a rugby league ground nearly anywhere in the world and be able to have a chat with someone about rugby league. And that’s something that I love. That I can turn up anywhere, know someone there and talk footy.
“I’m indebted to the NRL for the rest of my life and given me the opportunities I’ve got to do in the game.”
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