New Zealand Law Society - Rugby refereeing and the law: Keith Brown

Rugby refereeing and the law: Keith Brown

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By Turei Mackey 

Southland lawyer Keith Brown probably has an advantage over fellow colleagues when it comes to a good yarn or two. The former international rugby referee has stood in the middle of many of the most famous rugby stadia in the world plus some of the less traditional grounds.

“I once had to referee an international game in Port Moresby (Manu Samoa vs Papua New Guinea). That was a real experience. We were basically playing inside a cage of barbwire and the fans were just on the other side of it.”

Mr Brown took to the whistle in 1993 while studying law at Otago University, after realising he was a “wee guy trying to play in a big guy’s game”. His rise up the refereeing ranks saw the Cruickshank Pryde partner control 111 first class matches and eight international test matches.

It saw him deal with some of the most opinionated people in the world – rugby fans.

“Some of the games in South Africa were an experience due to the passionate supporters. You sometimes needed a police escort to the match which is something we don’t deal with in New Zealand. I loved refereeing over there on those grounds because we think we’re passionate about rugby, but we have nothing on South African fans.

“After calling a penalty you could often hear the reaction (by the fans) but you’re tied up in the moment, and you have so many things on your mind, you just have to work hard to mentally shut the reaction out.

“The practice of law is about dealing with people and that is what refereeing really is as well, relating to people,” he says.

“I’m not sure there are too many parallels between the practice of law and refereeing rugby. In rugby the referee is given a lot of licence as to when to apply the law. That doesn’t happen in the practice of law.”

Since 1994 Mr Brown had built a career in commercial and rural law. A year after he was made a partner in 2001, a secondary career came calling when the New Zealand Rugby Union selected him for its national referee squad. In 2009 Mr Brown was made a full-time professional referee with the NZRU, a position he held until 2012 when he retired to spend more time with his young family and return to his practice.

 “The practice here in Invercargill on a Friday is fairly busy and that is often the day referees need to be moving around the country or further afield. Modern technology did make it easier for me early on in that clients didn’t need to meet me in the office all the time.

“But in 2009, and until last year, I was employed fulltime as a referee so I needed to take a leave of absence from the firm although I would come into work when I was back in town.

“Initially I signed a one-year contract with the NZRU, and I thought that would be enough to get the refereeing bug out of my system. But it ended up taking four years. Thankfully my partners at Cruickshank Pryde, my family and my clients were all incredibly supportive.”

Mr Brown still referees lower club games and school rugby but is happy to now focus again on being a lawyer and on weekends an ardent fan.

“I wanted to retire at the right time. The last thing I wanted was to be bitter and twisted when I left refereeing at that level and that certainly wasn’t the case. I loved every moment of it. I do miss some aspects of it but I enjoy being able to put my feet up on a Friday night and just watch the game.”

This article was first published in LawTalk 826, 30 August 2013, page 10.

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