2023 Tales Of A Junior Referee – Episode 1

The Beast In The East

Its juniors opening day today. Round 01.

I’ve been scheduled on at Charlottes Vineyard Sports Pavilion, home of the mighty Ellenbrook Rabbitohs, and they have their fixtures today against a junior club on the rise, in the Fremantle Roosters. An injection of life into the club in the form of a new ground in the last 18 months have given them a new lease on life.

I’m fairly sore though. Having been involved in the seniors officiating yesterday, it takes a little longer than usual to recover, and lets be honest, I’m not as fit as I used to be. But I roll out of bed and get ready for they day.

Boots. Uniform. Whistle. Long Black Socks. I’m ready to head down.

I’ve been given a couple games today, culminating in the U14 Boys Fixture between the Rabbitohs and the Roosters, which knowing what I know about both teams should be a cracker.

To give you some context, I’m on the northside of Perth, so it takes me about 20 minutes to get to Ellenbrook. I blast some smooth soul (Marvin Gaye is the go to) to calm me down and get me into a happy state.

Now if your reading this and have no idea about rugby league here, the Rabbitohs are a huge junior club. They field almost every team, and finding a park is sometimes a bit tricky.

God was on my side today and as soon as I got there, someone was pulling out. I did the old nod and wave and pulled in to witness the organised mayhem on the fields. It’s pumping down there and the line for the canteen is stacked deep, so you know the canteen is under the pump.

I’m greeted by a familiar sight as I pull up to the officials tent. David Kellie (below on the left), the junior coordinator, is an absolute legend. No kids involved, doesn’t play himself, and he still puts in massive hours for the Rabbitohs. A big man with a big heart, he is joined by Glen Kennedy, their current Women’s League Tag coach, who has morphed into a jack of all trades. Dragging his wife around with him, he is in the unique position of living about 20 seconds away from the field.

The Roosters volunteers are also a familiar sight. The Robles clan, with Jose and Danielle in their Blue shirts are always smiling. They love rugby league and are always around. Mark Sanders has a yellow shirt on, and offers me a big smile as he warmly shakes my hand before he runs off to do something else.

I’ve still got a bit of time before my first game, and I wander around shaking hands and saying hello. I’ve spent time with young players from both clubs and get the old “Uncle! Are you refereeing our game?” from a few Ellenbrook and Fremantle players. I answer in the affirmative to their cries of “YES!”. It makes me smile and reinforces why I give up my weekend to do this.

I get changed and head out to the field where I run into a couple of superstars in the making in Asic-Wade Evans (Rabbitohs) and Gabriel Hei Hei (Roosters). I get the old “bro” handshake from both of them before I get out and do the U12s fixture.

The U12s is a brilliant game, and I have so much fun. The kids are interacting with me in a positive way, and boy can they play. Encouragement flows both ways from off the field, with both coaches and supporters commenting on the play of both teams.

“What an amazing pass!”
“Great tackle!”
“OMG did you see that run?”

Matt Crockett is ever smiling, as he watches over his Roosters like a proud father as they go back and forth with an amazing and energetic Rabbitohs side. The Roosters score first through Cruze Buckley with an amazing show and go while the Rabbitohs respond through Josaia Seeto. Ellenbrook grade player Si Gardiner smiles at me as he offers me a drink after the try and we share a joke or two. A late breakaway by the Roosters results in a desperate try saving tackle from Jye Nicholson, and the game ends in a furious late exchange with both U12 teams having a real crack.

Hand shakes, high fives and proud hugs from parents follow the game. And I speak to a couple of proud parents off the field in Bobbie-Lee Barker and Junior Seeto, more senior Ellenbrook players.

I have a stretch and hydrate up and get ready for the big one. Fremantle U12s do a tunnel for the sides and start their slow clap about 5 minutes too early and it fizzles out twice before they get it right. The parents are cracking up about it, and the mood around the ground is upbeat. It gets funnier when Ellenbrook run out first and one kid remarks “do we clap?”

I pull the captains and both teams in for the coin toss (which hand is the whistle in, because I forgot my coin). The teams know me, but I go through my spiel for all the players.

“Keep the tackles nice and low please”
“No pushing or mucking around at marker”
“Play rugby league, your great players”

And we are underway. Young Hunter Rongo kicks off, and he is a talented player. Big, fast and strong, he has a natural feel for the game that would make grade players jealous. Throw in the natural talents of gun Gabriel Hei Hei and the imposing power and speed of Tyler Dickie and the Roosters are coming out swinging.

But it is the bravery of a couple of their smaller players that catches my eye. Zac Sanders makes a brilliant ball and all tackle on a player twice his size right in front of his own goal posts. He knows its only him and he will probably come off second best, but he holds his ground and stops him cold. Malakai Faataumaua also seems to take every 2nd hitup as his team mates continue to feed the short and stocky forward the ball, and he carries it forward at 100 miles an hour every time. I swear after his 40th carry he looks at me as if to say “again?” and runs into the brutal Rabbitohs defence.

The Bunnies however are a tough side to play, especially at home. Wade Evans is a monster in the middle of the field. He gets a blood nose twice, and continues to come back on and show up everywhere. Fromby Turner, with his sister and coach Juraea Turner yelling from the sideline, is the hitup leader and bounces and spins out of numerous tackles, while LJ Tongi is a hurricane of epic proportions out wide and actually scares me a little bit.

Its a great back and forth game. I enjoy some funny moments with the players where I have a coughing fit, and the Rabbitohs halfback Daniel Cyckoma asks me quite seriously “Are you okay?”. Young Ewan Robles pulls off a high tackle and as I blow a penalty, he thinks he is going to the bin and relief on his face is palpable as he stays on. The game comes down to the last play, with young Hei-Hei distraught after the near miss, being consoled by multiple Rabbitohs.

The players of the day are undoubtedly the diminutive hookers from both teams. Htoo Adee from the Bunnies is the star, with his explosive speed and power the reason why the Bunnies take the win, but young Billy Woolmer earns admirers of his own. A calm and calculated performance, it was like watching a young Isaac Luke and Cameron Smith face off, as two completely different types of players.

I speak with young Billy and Tyler’s fathers after the game and comment about both their ability to play and enjoy their rugby league, along with one of rugby leagues true soldiers in Taeta “Alex” Faataumaua who coaches the side. Its all smile from the Fremantle crew who enjoyed the immensley competitive game.

I wander over to the canteen, the real battlefield of a junior day, and recieve a Bunny Burger and Water from Karyssa and the team and reflect on how good rugby league really is, smile and look forward to next weekend……

Just another day in the life of a junior rugby league referee……