By Leah Berard
I will start off with a brief introduction. I’m originally from Stevens Point, WI and started playing rugby in college at University of Wisconsin – La Crosse. I played rugby for a season with the Wisconsin women after I graduated from college I moved to the Twin Cities in MN. I played a partial season for the Valkyries before reoccurring neck injuries and concussions forced me to the sidelines. I was literally watching a match of rugby one day, when I got recruited by the head of the MN referee society. I had no reason to not try it out, and the rest is history; I have been involved as a referee ever since. I am now currently living in St. Paul and am also involved in rugby as the youth development officer in MN as well as the middle and high school league commissioner. Over my years in rugby I’ve developed a range of connections. Here’s a story about where rugby has recently taken me.
Megan Knight is a former University of Colorado rugby player who lives in Laos and works for the Lao Rugby Union. A few years ago, Megan was exploring bringing well-known female rugby players, coaches and referees to Laos to help build their program. The original timeline/plan did not pan out; however, I reached back out to Megan in 2017 to see how I could help. Fortunately, she invited me to the Vientiane 10s tournament in Laos. I was invited back this year, and with her connection to a colleague in Vietnam, I was also asked me to be head referee and to deliver beginner courses the day before Hanoi 10s. I would then go on to Laos the following week and teach advanced classes as well as referee and referee coach. I paid for my flight to Asia and back. Lodging was provided by the respective unions. Some meals were also provided.
My trip started in Hanoi, where I was tasked with being a referee educator. It was the second year of the 10s tournament, and no Vietnamese referees had yet taken charge of any contact matches. I put together a referee workshop for a dozen Vietnamese rugby players and coaches to teach them the skills they’d need to employ the following day to referee full contact matches for the U-18 competition. The players they’d be refereeing were all from the same village, which boded well for success and cut down on the likelihood of referee abuse.
In preparation for the five-hour clinic, I put together some materials and videos, and planned practical activities. I had done something similar two years prior for Lao referees, so I felt like I knew what to expect. I knew resources would be limited and most if not all of the referees would be players and coaches first. At the end of the clinic, I would choose only six out of 14 participants to referee the U-18 competition the following day.
With the help of a referee from England, Trevor, we successfully completed the workshop and chose our six new referees. We asked them if they wanted to referee the next day, and two of the six confidently said ‘yes’ (one male and one female). The others said they would be on board if they can AR first and observe. Interestingly enough, the male who said ‘yes’ was the top performer from the males, yet the top female performer, who was the best in the group overall, was the most reluctant to referee a contact match. The following day we put the new referees right to work. Many asked again if they could AR first, I said “no, you’ll do fine and we are here to support you and jump in if we see any danger.” I can’t recall if I had any expectations for them; however, if I did they blew them away! They controlled the matches with confidence, eagerness and pure joy. I was especially excited by two referees who not only recognized ‘advantage’ could be played but had the courage to play it and to play it effectively.
It’s worth noting there were more females than males taking part in the workshop. It was also touching to see Vaen, a Lao referee I had worked with the previous year, give the Vietnamese refs a pep talk. Vaen refereed the women’s final in Hanoi, the first Lao referee to take charge of a final. Amazing!
The following weekend, my second weekend of workshops and rugby tournaments began. I had agreed to give an advanced referee course, and a female referee from Singapore, Christabelle, agreed to give the beginner referee course concurrently. I ended up having 10 participants, and almost all of them were in the beginning workshop I had given in 2017. Three Chinese female referees, Alice, Flower and Nora, joined us and were such a wonderful addition to the group. They were young and eager to learn. I saw their confidence grow and witnessed them working on and executing coaching points. Our team, full of different languages and accents, worked together well, always lending a hand to translate. We were fortunate to have a liaison, Panoy (Little Fish), with us from the moment we landed at the airport until the moment we left.
On the day of the finals, I decided the lone native Lao referee, Joey, deserved a shot at one of the men’s elite finals. Joey had been in my ref workshop in 2018. I learned he had recently given up playing rugby and declared himself a referee only. This is kind of a big deal. Lao Rugby is identified as a World Rugby affiliate, as Laos cannot field a full 15s team. As Laos has minimal resources, they do their best to train all players to coach, referee and serve as team medics. So identifying only as a referee, as Joey had done, was unusual. I had never watched him before and had no idea what his level was. My goal was to help Joey improve his skills and become a standard for local referees in Laos. His confidence was what drew me in. He was a novice yet embraced refereeing with real confidence. I didn’t care that he was blowing his whistle every restart kick (even though I’d told him in two languages not to). I appreciated he had the confidence and enthusiasm a good referee needs to succeed. Sunday, he refereed the elite men’s bowl final, and in doing so was the first male Lao referee to do a final.
My last night of the trip was Saturday night. It was an enjoyable and festive night. We saw some Lunar New Year dancers in the street from the back of our extended-size tuk-tuk. The referee team attended the tournament appreciation party in conjunction with the yearly Lao Rugby achievements and awards. It was also here where I read stories about how the Child Fund ‘Pass It Back’ program has changed the lives of many, particularly young women.
Here is where this journey ends (or just begins, as some may say). I want to say how liberating and joyful this trip was. I LOVED watching young referees approach the game with passion and enthusiasm. These are the moments that remind me why I’m still in this sport. I have been fortunate and have worked hard to get to opportunities such as these. After 14 years of refereeing and refereeing at the highest level, including two World Cups, I’ve made many connections and have the credentials to make it attractive to invite me. Through experience and putting in reps, other referees will find themselves getting invited to these events. It’s still typically pay-to-play, yet the experience and growth are worth every cent!