Top NZ rugby referee Ben O’Keeffe has revealed Chiefs coach Clayton McMillan phoned him after the Super Rugby Pacific final to check on his health in the face of a torrent of social media abuse over the result.
O’Keeffe presided over the Chiefs’ heartbreaking loss to the Crusaders at Hamilton’s FMG Stadium and was loudly booed – along with his officials team – as they were presented with their medals afterwards.
Three Chiefs players – notably captain Sam Cane in the dying moments – were yellow-carded during an encounter that featured a 15-8 penalty count against the home side, while winger Emoni Narawa had a try disallowed for an offside in the build-up.
That vitriol has continued over the days since, with O’Keeffe posting some of the unwanted feedback on Instagram.
After the game, McMillan declined to point a finger at the officials for the result, but seemed to endorse the fans’ booing and highlighted a missed forward pass that eventually led to a try by Crusaders first-five Richie Mo’unga.
“The biggest call, momentum swinger, was what I thought was a clear and obvious forward pass, just before halftime,” he said. “That [would give] us a scrum, we apply some pressure down that end of the field.
“They scored the play after… that’s a big moment. I don’t want to bag the referee – the crowd did that at the end of the game, maybe that says something.”
O’Keeffe has told SENZ radio he received a phone call from McMillan.
“Clayton McMillan was excellent,” he said. “He called me to see how I was – that was the first thing he worried about, nothing about the game – and I respect the man for doing that.”
Speaking from France, where he was on Rugby World Cup business, O’Keeffe has detailed the post-match review process followed by referees and admits there were mistakes in the final – including that forward pass.
“I went through my review after the game, and I knew there were some issues in the game that we clearly got wrong, and I needed to get better at,” he told SENZ. “It happens in every game of rugby.
“I look at every single play in the game, pass, potential decision, potential non-decision, my positioning, the way I communicate. It takes me a good 10 hours to go through the game forward, rewind, clipping, coding, because I want to give really good feedback to coaches.
“I’m also trying to improve as a referee, so I’m getting better week by week by week. I was able to do that on my 17-hour flight from Auckland to Dubai.”
Among the most contentious calls was the pass from second-five Jack Goodhue to flanker Tom Christie that travelled 4-5 metres forward, but went undetected by O’Keeffe and his assistant referees, Aussies Angus Gardner and Nic Mercer.
“There was a clear forward pass that we missed from the Crusaders,” admitted O’Keeffe. “When I look at it, I don’t just say I’ve missed it – it’s my responsibility to get that.
“What I noticed, when I did my review, is that I moved into the [defensive] line as the ball was passed behind me… I went in there too deep, so I was 4-5 metres behind the D-line, whereas you want to take half a step, get behind the D-line and as the defender comes through, you move back with the defender, so you can quickly get back into a ball-in-line position and be in line for those passes.
“That’s something I didn’t do, so in terms of my review, I can see I did something wrong. That’s the type of detail we go into, rather than just say we got it right or wrong.
“I’ll do that for all the whistle decisions I made, all the decisions I didn’t make and should have, the TMOs, the cards… everything that everyone’s talking about.”
O’Keeffe also warns against overthinking mistakes on the run.
“A lot of times within a game – and this is something I’ve had to train myself – you know you’ve potentially got something wrong and might even see it on the big screen, but you can’t let that incorrect decision snowball to affect other decisions you might be making.
“If you start doubting yourself and lose confidence, you start making errors, and that compounds and gets worse.”
He has told SENZ his stand against online bullies is as much about protecting his colleagues at all levels of the game – and other sports – as it is about his own wellbeing.
“I hope that by raising the awareness in this environment, people will understand what is happening,” said O’Keeffe. “Already, the outcome has been overwhelming positivity and support.
“I feel really proud that I’ve had multiple younger referees, referees in community rugby in New Zealand, message me to thank me, because they were starting to feel unsafe with the abuse they’ve been getting at the weekends and thinking about hanging up their whistles.
“They’ve thanked me for standing up for them and if I can get anything out of this, it’s to show my support to the individuals out there, who are doing it every weekend. I’ll continue to do that for as long as I’m refereeing.”