SA's First Referees' Society

Fri, 26 Jan 2018 09:53
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In those innocent days before Adam ate the apple, there were no referees. Players played the way they should.

Then, if some snake reared its poisonous head and there was the possibility that law had been broken, the two captains would discuss the matter and - easily - come to a decision.

Then a bigger and more poisonous snake caused the captains to disagree, and outsiders were used in decision-making. The non-player outsiders were two umpires, one representing each side, and a stern gentleman sitting in a whicker chair. The umpires each carried a stick. They raised it in support or lowered it in opposition. That was fine when both sticks were up or both were down. The problem came when one was up and the other was down. In that case they went and referred the matter to the stern gentleman in the whicker chair. Because he was a referred to he was called the referee, just as somebody who is employed is an employee.

This whole process was lengthy and bad for players' health as heated players stood in the rain and the cold as the debates raged on. And so the International Rugby Board said that it was ridiculous, got the referee out of the whicker chair, put him in the middle and eventually gave him the right to decide off his own bat.

Just as clubs were formed for individuals who had no natural grouping to belong to, as universities, military units and schools had, so referees, individuals in a team game, started to band together to help and feed off each other.

This was all happening towards the end of the 19th century.

In 1889 the first referees' society was founded - the London Society of Rugby Referees. The man behind it was Jimmy Budd, a medical doctor who later emigrated to South Africa. Sir Rowland Hill, much honoured at Twickenham, was the first chairman. He was followed by Sir Percy Royds. The two of them ruled the society from 1889 to 1955 - two chairmen in 66 years.

In England, the Lancashire County RFU was founded in 1881 and out of it was born two referees' societies - Manchester in 1902 and Liverpool in 1907.

New South Wales had a referees' association in 1892 and New Zealand followed with three - Wellington (1894), Canterbury (1894) and Auckland (1895).

There are others over a hundred, including Leinster Branch (1902), Manchester (1902), Transvaal (1904), Liverpool (1907) and Western Province (1909).

The oldest referees' society in South Africa is the Eastern Province Referees' Society, founded in 1896.

The man behind the foundation in Port Elizabeth was Harry Kemsley. He was not the first man to referee in South Afric but probably the first to be a real referee - not a player who refereed from time to time, but a referee first of all, a man who set out to become a referee.

By this stage there were Test matches in South Africa and Currie Cup matches - all with men to referee them. But those chosen were really players and always on hand. The first Test referee was John Griffin, a 32-year-old player who was vice-president of the Eastern Province Rugby Union when the first Test was played in Port Elizabeth. The first man to referee a Currie Cup match, in 1892, was Ferdie Aston, a player from Border, who went on to captain South Africa at rugby.

Henry Rickon Kemsley was not like that. 

His parents were from Kent and Henry was their youngest son. They sent him to Grey, then in the Donkin, and forbade him to play sport because he was so delicate.  He decided he would become a referee, made contact with the Lancashire referees, and at the age of 25 was the moving spirit behind the founding of the Eastern Province Referees' Society.

Kemsley's rise as a referee was rapid.  In 1894 he refereed his first senior match, the next year he was at the Currie Cup tournament and the year after that he refereed a test. He continued to referee senior matches till his retirement in 1919, a long career. 

He should be greatly honoured as the Father of Refereeing in South Africa.

By Paul Dobson