by Rochelle Palipane Gunaratne
“Eighty percent of refereeing is about possessing the correct mental attitude, while only a mere twenty percent is about the game,” revealed Clement Isack – one of Mother Lanka’s most respected rugby referees who has gained international repute and is a source of pride to her, and the one and only Sri Lankan with a World Rugby Level 3 accreditation, within the UAE Referees Society. The role which is pivotal to the smooth functioning of most sports requires a great deal of sacrifice, dedication and perseverance and the constant ability to keep learning and applying the knowledge to your profession.
Looking to the end
Clement’s childhood aspirations did not include being a referee but it was a passion which he stumbled upon quite by chance and his journey is inspirational.
As a Trinitian, Clement was no stranger to the game of rugby as the old adage, “Trinitians take to rugby as ducks take to water,” rings true most of the time but his athletic prowess was not limited to rugby parse; “I participated in many sports from hockey to basketball, cricket in addition to rugby but these were mostly at inter-house level. I was also a thespian who loved drama. I would often be thrust with tasks which others were reluctant to perform especially related to participating in events or sports and one such memory stands out,” he revealed with a chuckle as he reminisced about the famous H.I. Ratnayake who was an athletic legend at school and his classmate.
“H.I. convinced me to participate in the 10,000 metre event at the inter-house sportsmeet in 1993 and it didn't occur to me that I had to run 25 laps but I had participated in the cross country in the preceding years and did not think it would be impossible. While I ran the first four laps toe to toe with the champion runner, the rest was due to sheer determination to finish what I started. It came to a point when a few runners dropped out and others finished and I ran the last four laps all by myself and finished to the amazement of myself and the whole school earning loud applause.”
Through this anecdote and a few others which included a cycle ride from Kandy to Colombo within a few hours and more, I realized some valuable characteristics about this witty gentleman, and that was his resilience and desire to look to the end as defined in the motto of his alma mater, which is “Respice Finem.”
Discovering a passion
“While a career as a referee was never in my horizon, I relocated to Dubai in December 1997 and pursued my banking profession at HSBC. As expected, I used to follow the game of rugby and enrolled my son at a prestigious club called Dubai Exiles. It was during those visits that I volunteered to assist in coaching and with it was the opportunity to referee the matches played between the Blue, Red and Yellow teams which the other coaches were not keen to be part of. With a tendency to take on the responsibility when push came to shove, led me to a fascinating self-discovery about my affinity towards refereeing and to pursue it as a career.
These junior rugby fixtures were a prerequisite to the big league matches that were part and parcel of the entertainment available for the large group of expatriates in the fast-paced city. The financial crisis in 2008 led to mass scale redundancy in Dubai, which was a catalyst in igniting my career in refereeing in October 2008 after a completing a course.”
“In December 2008 I got the opportunity to be part of the Dubai 7s, which is akin to the holy grail of rugby in the Middle East that I followed religiously, and to be at the centre of the game as a referee was surreal. With almost 200 games of Sevens Rugby being played across seven pitches on Day 1, I was assigned to a team of 3, and ended up refereeing and assisting in 12-16 games on a roster basis in my group of 3. It was physically challenging and tested our endurance as we were constantly on our feet. I woke the next day with aches and pains but my mind was more determined to succeed. Thankfully, Stan, the Referee Manager for the Dubai 7s, handed me an IRB jersey, shorts and socks and assigned me to Pitch 1 as a hydro-technician, where the international games were being played and telecast live globally. In simple terms, I was the water boy, but there was a sense of elation at being in an arena with over 40,000 spectators. Fast forward to Day 3, and I was assigned a few games in the invitational tournament where I faced a situation that required disciplinary action against a player for foul play. I had not used any cards until this point, and the player was towering above me at 6’5’’, so I decided that I would warn and discharge him instead of sending him to the sin-bin.
As I was about to restart the game, the assistant referee Roger Drew, a project manager and reputed referee coach from Auckland, stood with his flag out to signal foul play. He described the incident in detail and recommended a yellow card, and despite my reluctance, Roger’s narrative left me with no choice but to direct this hulk of a figure to the sinbin. The player showed utmost respect and apologized before walking away, and this incident provided me with a new level of confidence, and there was no turning back from that point,” he recalled.
“The burgeoning expat populace in Dubai during the ensuing years meant exposure to a myriad of learning opportunities in every sphere and rugby was no exception. While refereeing is rewarding, it takes a lot of commitment as it is physically and mentally challenging and I was keen to improve.
This led me to master skills and push myself for higher honors and was delighted to get the call from the UAE Rugby Federation and Asia Rugby to participate in a World Rugby L3 officiating course in 2012. Refereeing in Dubai also paved the way for the forging of bonds which were mutually beneficial as we exchanged ideas and drew inspiration from referees in various parts of the world in which rugby was played. One such guy was the late Steve Williamson from Brisbane.
Standing tall at 6’2’’ he earned the moniker, ‘Big Willy’and he was one who encouraged me to complete all the steps in the accreditationthat was signed off by World Rugby in 2013,” Isack added.
“The UAE Rugby Referees Society had many exchange programmes with other referee associations around the world, and I made maximum use of those opportunities to gain valuable experience on the fine art of refereeing. Rugby has taken me to places I never imagined I would go to, and with each experience my passion to give back to the game has multiplied a dozen times. Being a referee is part of a global fraternity and among others in the fraternity who had a significant impact on my career was Stanley Wright, a customs officer from Wellington, fondly known as ‘Uncle Stan’, who helped me understand what ‘integrity’ really meant from a refereeing perspective. To this day, I am a strong advocate of the values of the game – integrity, passion, solidarity, discipline and respect, and believe they can be applied even to everyday life, not just in rugby. I was also fortunate to benefit from a support network outside rugby that included family and close friends, who helped me in a lot of ways to find the right balance between my passion for refereeing and life in general.”
Some of the key attributes that could be advantageous to a referee is to be proactive, anticipate the next move, maintain fitness, respect others and earn their respect and keep on driving towards your goals in terms of learning new skills and being up-to-date about the knowledge of the game. Surmise it to say, being a referee requires a passionate love for the game.