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Don Morrison - Accidental ref

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Recently, Mark Lawrence refereed in the USA and his assessor was Don Morrison, the man who made huge breakthroughs for referee in the USA, the man who refereed the strangest Test of all in 1981. Morrison has been kind enough to tell his story, which we shall publish in a serial. Our first part is how he got into refereeing.

The sun was setting and the day was cold and gray. The ground was sloppy, as it always is in early March in Massachusetts. I was running around the MIT (the Massachusetts Institute of Technology) athletic fields to get my legs back into shape after knee surgery in November. When I began to run past the MIT rugby pitch I noticed a bunch of guys out training in the cold muck and mire. They stopped me and asked me to join the club. I told them I had bad knees and would not dare play rugby, so they asked me to referee. I said I didn't know anything about the rules. They said, "That's okay. Neither do we." And so I got involved in refereeing rugby.

Here it is 45 years later and I am still involved in the world of rugby refereeing. I have never played a game, not even a practice game in a club scrimmage. This had its benefits in my learning of the game, but for the first few years of my refereeing career it certainly posed problems. In those early days of refereeing when I walked onto the pitch to referee a game 30 players and one referee thought to themselves, "Oh ****! Don is refereeing today."

I started out like any rookie referee, officiating the last game of the day so that the players left out of earlier games could get a run on the pitch. We all made tons of mistakes but we had fun. There was a dearth of referees back in 1967 - I was the third person in Massachusetts to commit to refereeing full-time. The other two referees and I formed a referee society (The Boston Rugby Referees Society) in 1967. In our first meeting we elected officers. Bill Rogers, the top referee, was elected President. Bill's job was to appoint the three of us to our games on Saturday. Joe Walsh was a professor at MIT so he was elected Vice President. Joe's job was to arrange it so we could meet at the MIT Faculty Club. And that left me, the new kid on the block. I was elected Treasurer, which I found rather odd since everything we did was at our own expense. So I asked Bill and Joe why I was elected Treasurer of an organisation that had no money. They happily explained to me that my job as Treasurer was to buy a round of drinks before each meeting.

The Boston Referees Society soon changed its name to the New England Rugby Referees Society, and today it is the largest local union referee society in America with over 100 members and more than 80 active referees. Not only is the New England Rugby Referees Society the largest society it is also one of the best.

I have had the privilege to serve in every position that exists within this society and by far my least favorite job was referee appointments. This was in the dark ages before Internet and email. No matter how much planning went into the assignments there were always tons of changes to be made at the last minute. I felt like I had a phone growing out of my ear.

In 1967 I was a recent graduate of MIT (1966). I was in the graduate school of MIT pursuing my PhD (1970). I had been married for less than one year (June 7, 1966) and Trudy remains the love of my life today. I was always keen on doing anything athletic and I was competitive in anything I tried. Some things I did well (judo comes to mind - black belt and competitive on a national collegiate level) and some things I did really horribly (basketball comes to mind - I failed miserably in my attempt to make my high school team). So when I took up refereeing rugby I wanted to do my best and try to improve each step of the way.

The Laws of Rugby are an odd set of rules. They define the game by describing the ball, the pitch, when the ball is dead, how play is restarted, what is a tackle, and tons more. The Laws also spend a bit of time describing things that are prohibited such as punching an opponent (Law 10.4.a). The list of forbidden acts is quite limited. For example, nowhere does it explicitly say it is illegal to punch a teammate. And, yes, I had to cope with games that involved fighting exclusively amongst teammates. Even worse, nowhere does it explicitly say it is illegal to punch a referee. I have never been punched by a player, coach or participant before or after the game, but the world is replete with referees who have been abused like this.

In particular the Laws don't tell players how to play the game and this lets each team capitalise on its strengths and figure out how to minimise its weaknesses. I grew up in Texas and THE sport in that state was gridiron football. The strategies and tactics of how to approach a game with consideration of the players' strengths and weaknesses are used in football just as they are in rugby. Thus the notion that each team and each game would be different was not alien to me. However, the idea that a referee could make the players play better than what they wanted to do on a given day was not yet on my radar screen. Recognising and achieving this approach to refereeing is a measure of an elite referee, which I ultimately achieved. In the early days of my career I simply ran around and applied the Laws as best I could.

Advantage was an art that took me a long time to master. In American football if the referee sees an infringement he throws a penalty flag and then holds a caucus with other referees after the play is over. After the caucus the referee offers the non-offending team their options. The advantage law in rugby frequently allows the referee to let play continue without stoppage. The initial art of Advantage involves knowing when to play advantage and knowing when advantage is gained. An even tougher thing to learn is how to let players know what you saw and played through so that they won't commit the infringement again.

I have always been rather good at managing people and this helped in my refereeing career. I don't mean to say that I was always brilliant at managing the players. Alas, I had to abandon more than one game in the early stages of my refereeing career. But I never turned my back on the players. I always sought out their advice after the game.

In my early days of refereeing most clubs did not have a full-time coach. Yes, they had a player who served as coach but he was not a full-time coach, he was a full-time player. The biggest benefit of my never having played the game was that I learned how to referee the game by seeking feedback from the players after each and every game. I was not taught the game through the eyes of those who knew the Laws; I was taught the game through the eyes of those who played the game. It takes a thick skin and a strong desire to improve oneself by sitting in a bar after the game and getting feedback from the players. For the most part the feedback offered to me was given positively, but I have had to endure more than enough sessions in which I was berated. In all cases I was smart enough and dedicated enough to listen to the message, not how the message was delivered.

I was a quick learner. I recall being appointed to referee the final of the New England spring tournament in 1969 after only two years of experience. This was a big deal for me. It involved the best two teams in New England having a go at each other to establish who was the best club in New England. I did fine in that game and that boosted my confidence immensely.

Rugby in the 1970s saw a lot of growth in New England, both in terms of number of clubs and the skills of play. By this time I was an established referee of senior men's rugby. I gained a lot of valuable experience in the early 70s, all of it in New England or local unions nearby. I had improved enough to earn the respect of the players and the clubs.

It is a well-established fact of the game that a referee is judged first on his reputation. Early in my career my horrible reputation worked against me. I was deemed to be awful and had to prove myself to be better than that. After a few years of refereeing my reputation was good. Players would think, "Oh good. Don is refereeing today." I was deemed to be good and was given some leeway if I was less than stellar.

* In Part Two of this story, we will deal with Don's progress.

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