My first rugby memory is going to secondary school at 11 and having to play rugby when growing up in a soccer mad city and supporting Aston Villa all I’d known was football and cricket. My father is from Jamaica and cricket was his love so it naturally became my summer sport.
Rugby was completely alien and I hated it. I played one match because we had to, then packed it in. Football and cricket remained my sporting pursuits but that all changed when I was 15. Due to my combative style as a central midfield player my football teacher told me that unless I wore shin pads I would not be selected for our next match. Being a typical know it all teenager, I decided I was right and refused. I turned up for the match, no shin pads and was promptly dropped. What followed was to change my life for good as a teacher called Mr Gee (who is Ben Morgan’s Grandfather) said why don’t you play rugby, so I did and I loved it, playing fly half gave me all I needed and I thrived.
From there I joined my local rugby club, Handsworth. The club was to become my life for the next 10 years and when I mean life, I mean life; my social life and sporting life revolved entirely around the club, all my mates played there and we had the most amazing experiences. What I now know is the club is not unique and many men and women share the same experiences that I have.
My rugby career consisted of playing for a number of clubs in the West Midlands. I started at Handsworth RFC in Birmingham and played through from U16’s tall the way up to the First team. Along the way I played for the County Colts and Under 23’s (as it was then). I left Handsworth for a stint at Moseley in the mid-late ’80’s where I learned so much about the game and was lucky enough to play with some fantastic players at a great club. I then returned to Handsworth briefly before being head hunted to join Wolverhampton.
I guess I was ambitious but having realised at Moseley that I didn’t have the pace to play first class rugby I wanted to play as high as I could without having to move far. Again, Wolverhampton was and is a great club where I became coach and captain for 4 years and enjoyed it immensely. Things changed a lot in my time and along with a number of other players I left for pastures new. Fuelled by an interest from a club higher up the leagues and ambitious to go further, I joined Walsall RFC in 1992, which also coincided with a golden period for the club.
For a club who were founded in 1923, the club had enjoyed lots of local success and produced lots of internationals with Jan Webster and Rupert Moon being the two stand outs.
Walsall was a great time in my career. I gained full county honours, played in a County Championship semi-final and won several leagues, cups and 7s competitions. We had a pretty decent side and played at a time when Exeter, London Welsh and Leeds were all rising through the leagues. We had some great battles against them all. I remember some titanic battles against the Exeter side captained by Rob Baxter and with Leeds whom Phil Davies was building into a strong team full of former internationals. We usually ran them close, losing one epic battle with Leeds when ex Wales Fly half, Colin Stephens converted a try from the touchline to defeat us by a point with the very last kick of the match.
We also had a great run to the 5th round of the cup where we drew Gloucester at Kingsholm. Playing that day in front of a packed Shed was fantastic and although we lost by 30 points, I remember Richard Hill who was coaching Glos at the time, said he wouldn’t mind marrying his forwards with our backs.
Playing came to an end for me in 1998. I remember one of my last games playing against Aspatria from Cumbria where I was 14st and 5”10” and opposite me was a young guy called Steve Hanley who was around 6” 5” and 17st, he could also shift and I saw him a year later making his England debut at Wembley against Wales!
I got into refereeing by accident because in 1995 I became a Youth Development Officer (YDO) for the RFU working in Birmingham and North Midlands. My colleague and former Moseley and Wolverhampton teammate was Graham Smith with whom I enjoyed and still enjoy a great friendship and still do whilst coincidentally working fantastically well with each other on the pitch.
We set up what are now effectively club academies but within a county setting. During our time we saw a number of players who went on to have great careers like Luke Narraway, who went on to be capped, plus a host of players who performed in the Championship and Premiership.
As part of our role we had to take refereeing courses as well as deliver them. I became frustrated at the level of refereeing we saw at junior county level and decided that I could do better.
Anyone who knows me from my playing days will tell you I am very much poacher turned game keeper!
I enjoyed the experience of refereeing but it was only ever at that time very infrequent, besides I had designs on a coaching career. At the end of ‘98 I took a job with the IRB as it was as a development manager in the Caribbean. Although on paper it was great job, the reality was different, and less than a year later after a huge change in policy I was back in England. Playing wasn’t an option and on a chance visit to the RFU Schools and Youth Centre in Wolverhampton I bumped into the then head of refereeing, Nick Bunting, who said to me:
“I hear you fancy yourself as a referee? You failed as a player and failed as a coach, I reckon your only chance of success in this game is as a referee, and you should be thinking of RWC 2003!”
As you can imagine, I took exception to his use of the word ‘failure’ and thought OK……I’ll show you!
“OK where do I sign up?” I said.
I the joined the Warwickshire society in 1999, in 2000 I was seconded to the RFU National Panel and in 2001 I was appointed to the Elite Referee Group as it was called then.
In two years I’d gone from refereeing Ford Leamington 3rds to running the line in the Premiership!
My journey into refereeing at the time was untypical but what I did not know at the time was the RFU wanted to break the mood of referee progression which, was to serve your time at various levels, usually taking 5-8 years to do so and with lots of political hurdles to overcome, all of which was off putting and anyone who had my background just would simply never start doing, not when you know more about the game than most you encounter.
I was the first to benefit from what is now a more accepted pathway. Thankfully, things changed as a result of a bold move, not only by the RFU but Warwickshire and the Midlands who supported me through the early years and gave me matches to referee, which for one with such little experience was unheard of.
Thankfully I got through it and my game and coaching knowledge was invaluable. I knew the game inside out and could understand the players and their motivations, plus I was a good talker and able to “manage” games effectively.
In October 2001 I became the Referee Development Manager for the Midlands, a job I held for 8 years before joining the RFUW as Head of Development. It was during this time that things should have been at an all time high for me, my refereeing was taking off, I had a great job and life in general was good. Sadly though it was around this time that I realised things weren’t right, I was making risky decisions in my personal life, I was involved in aspects of life that were taking me down the wrong route. Drinking became heavy, I would look for any excuse to over indulge and go on binges which were destructive. I was still performing and doing well on the field and in 2003 made my Premiership debut at Sale v Bath, a game that went by in a flash.
I’d long gone past the sense of isolation that refereeing can bring and what everyone has to remember is for a referee every game is an away game, you travel alone, you train alone and you prepare alone – well you did back then. The times you travelled collectively where on European duty and those trips are a great experience and the few times when you can actually be a team. Making friendships with fellow referees is hard, you live in different parts of the country or world, you don’t see each other for weeks on end and you’re competing but you do make friends through a shared understanding of how hard the role is.
Refereeing is at times a bit of a “whinge fest” as you recieve and make calls whinging about a fellow referee and why he’s got games and you haven’t. You often make fun of him making errors in matches as you believe it helps you get selected but underneath all that there is a comradery from knowing at some point you’ll all get a bad press headline and become centre stage!
Any referee or player who says it doesn’t affect them is a liar or in denial. Online forums with the keyboard warriors are massively draining if you read them. For a few years I made the mistake of doing so and through creating a profile I got into stating my point of view. This was with the notion that if I put the facts out there it will help. How wrong can you be? When you read what people are saying it is a self-defeating thing to do, you cannot win as many will argue black is white, even faced with the facts!
I’m proud of a number of things I managed to achieve in my refereeing career. I am one of only 5 non-full-time referees to referee more than 100 Premiership matches, I made it to the Elite level in the quickest time ever for a referee back in 2001 and still the only mixed race referee to officiate in the Premiership. What I “believe” I also have is respect from a number of areas within the game. Not least, I see players from my era who stop to chat and do so in a genuine way and it’s also nice to see supporters at games come up and tell me I was one of the best and they enjoyed my style of refereeing, I guess the ego still lives on….
Three occasions I recall being thrust in the spotlight. One was after admitting online I’d made a mistake at a game between Bath and Saints. The first I knew was a phone call from John “Knuckles” Connolly, the Bath coach saying:
“Rosey, what have you done?”
It was in the Daily Express across two pages but what you actually saw was a headline about “Referee admits mistake” and my picture, followed by an article with one paragraph about me with the rest about Sir Clive Woodward and a spat with the RFU!
Another was when Brian Smith accused me of almost cheating. He didn’t use the exact word but his comments alluded to that but what he wouldn’t say was he got outcoached and out thought, plus there was animosity at the time between individuals which had nothing to do with me but he used me to make a point.
The same with Brendan Venter, who effectively said that I’d been got at during half-time in a match v Leicester. The story is, Sarries were leading comfortably at half time and for some reason Sarries decided to change their front row, as did Leicester. From there the match swung decisively, with Leicester destroying the Sarries scrum, so much so that the Sarries captain after one scrum stood next to me and said:
“Our loose head can’t cope with Dan Cole and I know you have to do your job!”
You have to simply move on and accept it as part and parcel of refereeing.
Training and preparation for matches in those days was all self-led. You met with your coach in the week after your match but, if you did not have one it could be weeks between sessions, so you watch as much as you can, you talk to people you trust and you worked it out. You had to self-motivate to go out and train, get down the gym in the early mornings or after work and be “professional”.
You’re involved in a professional game as a part-time official but nobody wants to hear that, and quite right. Personally I loved that part, I’ve always loved competition and when I was training part of my motivation was thinking:
“I bet Barnsey (Wayne Barnes) or Sid (Dave Pearson) is training so I’m not going to be sat at home chilling out”.
It wasn’t my full-time role but it felt like it.
In those days, we were tested four times per year which was hard work. Each session took the best part of a day and as any competitive group, each of us wanted to show the others how well we were doing.
The testing involved your aerobic capacity, sprint speed over 10 and 40M, flexibility, leg power and body fat. If you didn’t meet the standard you knew about it and at times were either dropped or taken off games. There was no hiding place. My partner at the time lived in Plymouth so seeing her was a challenge and I know it affected her and long term, our relationship.
The drinking didn’t change and slowly I realised there was something more to it as I had days of feeling lonely, of a real sense of despair mixed with massive highs. I over analysed massively and wanted to find out why but couldn’t begin to think that what I was experiencing was just a “phase”. I’d had these feelings many times and thought little of it.
In my role working with promising referees in the Midlands I did some work with a psychologist and during one of our discussions I broke down, uncontrollably I cried and cried, it was almost a release valve had been let off and I couldn’t stop. I don’t recall too much of what I said but I knew I’d said a lot. She referred me to a councillor and to cut a long story short I was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and as bipolar.
The PTSD came about from a an episode of abuse in my childhood that I’d locked away for years and didn’t ever discuss it until that session triggered emotions I’d buried. Bipolar was altogether different but went some way to explaining my behaviour patterns.
I’m asked how I coped by those I’ve shared this with.
How could you have refereed in front of 1000’s and taken all that pressure?
For me the rugby pitch was a place of comfort; a brutal, exposing comfort but a place where I felt “safe”. The troubles I had and the feelings I had were left for that 80-90 minutes when I could do something I loved and was reasonably good at. Even when faced with criticism, I had built up a certain outward resilience but inwardly I was hurting, I’d go off into my drinking sessions and think nothing about rugby. I’d get lost in drink until the next training session. I would then beat myself up, tell myself I was a professional athlete and had to be so all the time whilst the other side of me was saying don’t worry, you’ll be OK.
I “retired” from refereeing in 2013-14. I didn’t want to but had to and this broke me emotionally because by this time I’d split with my partner, met my new partner, had two boys from different relationships (years apart) and still my world was a mess.
Retirement under the circumstances hit me hard. Add to that, losing contact with my eldest son, struggling with life with my new partner and son, all whilst fearing the prospect of losing contact with him. I tried to train as hard as I could in the hope of making a comeback so went to the gym and thought I was training hard but my condition was eating away at me as I couldn’t shake off the daily trauma, the lack of sleep and the anxiety of what I was going through. I tried as hard as I could but what finally did me was arranging a fitness test with the High Performance Unit at Marjon University.
I went full of optimism, confident that I would smash it but how wrong was I again?
I failed miserably and could not understand why. This triggered a whole set of negative emotions and I was off again, into that dreaded spiral of despair. What made matters worse was I’d lost contact with those I thought were friends and I felt ostracised.
The amazing thing through all this was I had some wonderful messages from people I’d never had any contact with. They reached out via social media or other means to offer support. I was also surprised that several DOR’s contacted me to offer support, a couple being the most unlikely!
I cannot thank those people enough and will never say publicly who they are, but they know.
My local Referee Society where fantastic too. Nobody said a word and the vast majority of people don’t but they know something wasn’t right and I’d been made an example by the authorities because as with most of these things, the court of public opinion makes its judgement and leaves you with no room to reply without sounding defensive.
I was at my lowest point in the summer of 2014 because, for me, I knew it was over, I’d tried to come back, I’d been doing the odd game for my society which was great fun, going to clubs in Devon who I didn’t know but they knew me and knew my story. That was painstakingly hard but I did it, probably to prove something to myself. T
hat summer I went for a walk along part of the South West Coast path and the walk took me to a cliff edge opposite Mothercombe Beach on the Erm Estuary. I stopped for what was only going to be a short rest but I looked down at the rocks below me and thought this is it, this is the way to go, to release the pain, to stop the hurt that I was feeling.
I’d become a burden, unable to properly function as I wanted, unable to hold down a relationship and failure seemed a recurring theme. This seemed like it was the right way to go, suicide and ending it all on a beautiful day, in a beautiful spot seemed somehow a great option.
I was crying but seemingly at peace as I walked closer. I looked down and thought just go mate, then I heard a voice, a female’s voice and unbeknown to me, a woman walking her dog had been watching me for a few minutes. She called out to me asking if I was OK but I didn’t respond and just stood there. She spoke again and I felt her presence closer to me and by now I was crying uncontrollably. She managed to get me away from the edge and sat me down on a bench and we talked for ages, a total stranger who just listened…..and listened. The images of my boys and their laughter filled my head and at that point I knew what I was contemplating was wrong. I knew I had to fight and if for no other reason it was for them.
In 2016 I was offered the opportunity to make a return to the professional game and I have to say the Head of the PGMOT (Professional Game Match Officials Team) made a brave call and offered me a role as a TMO. I also have to say, he didn’t need to do that but he did and that showed me that my rehabilitation was complete, I was accepted once again. I can only thank him for what must have been a difficult decision.
Five years on from that I still suffer but I rarely drink to anything like what I have in the past. I’m back in rugby in a number of roles and whilst I will always be bipolar, the PTSD is under control and the support I have from my partner is unbelievably good for me.
Being a Television Match Official (TMO) now is a huge difference. I enjoy it but nothing beats being on the pitch, as any player or referee will tell you.
The whole area of male mental health has become a huge topic and thankfully, the number of high profile sportsmen and women, along with other public figures, have removed the stigma that long held people back from talking about their issues.
In sport, it’s easy to focus on the star players, those with a profile and whose voices get listened to.
As a referee who operates mainly in isolation, often has to take the pressure of crowd abuse and what feels at times like public humiliation, I often wonder why nobody has ever considered those of us who have retired from the game and how we feel.
It is no more or less difficult to cope with life outside the confines of the sport as you have a cloak of support that sport does provide and whilst refereeing is a solitary experience, there are networks and of course fellow referees who know what it feels like but what happens when the whistle stops, what happens when you’re told you’re too old, or not good enough?
I can tell you what!
You are yesterday’s man and no longer their concern, no consideration for your well-being, what you gave up, what you may have lost. That sounds harsh on those who make the decisions and it is not meant to be, it is though the reality.
They have a job to do, and professional sport is a brutal business, so I get it.
What I would like to see the game and sport in general do, is consider the life of its people beyond the dressing room and beyond their worth to that organisation.
My journey continues, I will always have to deal with what I have done, what has happened to me and the damage I have caused others. It’s a brutal reality for those who suffer, that we impact on those around us the greatest, those whom we love and love us end up suffering through no fault of their own. It is difficult to find solace at times, however, I know enough now to understand how I impact on others and work daily to be a better person, I hope I succeed…