Most referees have the ambition to go up higher, to referee matches at a higher level. But none will have gone as high as Graham Allen plans to go.
Allen, the president of the Edinburgh Rugby Referees’ Society, is, at 54, no longer the active referee he once was – or so it seems. But he is coming out of retirement to referee two matches at a height no rugby has ever been played before.
In April 2019, he will be refereeing two Sevens matches at 6 600 metres above sea level – that is at Mount Everest’s advanced base camp. They will be seven-a-side matches with full contact, played by men and women. Amongst the players are Shane Williams, the Ireland wing, Lee Mears, the England hooker in over 60 Tests, Tamara Taylor, who captained England Women at lock and Ollie Phillips who captained England at Sevens and was the Sevens Player of the Year in 2009. Phillips played rugby at the North Pole as part of an event to raise funds for Wooden Spoon. Mears refereed the match there. Those four are the four team captains.
The 30-person squad, led by experienced Carrie Gibson, is set to arrive in Katmandu on 13 April 2019 and spend 24 days on the mountain with the intention of playing two matches – a contact match and a touch rugby match, to be played on a flat piece of ground between Everest and nearby Lhakpa Ri. It is expected that the event will make it into the Guinness Book of Records.
Allen was once a top referee in Scotland, whose achievements include refereeing in the Heineken Cup and at the Commonwealth Games. An adventurous man, this “appointment” is more than an adventure as the plan is to raise funds for Wooden Spoon, a rugby-driven charity for disadvantaged and disabled children in the UK and Ireland.
It wad founded in 1983 after England had lost in Ireland, thereby earning the Five Nations’ wooden spoon. In a Dublin pub, five Englishmen received the wooden spoon from unsympathetic Irishmen and responded by organising a golf day which raised £8 450 to buy a new minibus for a special needs school. The charity has grown with rugby support. It hopes to raise some £200 000 for children with this event. That would roughly be Euro 233 000, US$ 262 000 US dollars and ZAR 3 830 000. They are aiming high all right. Eacxh of the participants is set to raise money to hep reach the target.
All rugby matches, high and low, need a referee and Allen is the man for this occasion. Like the players, he has been making a serious enough effort to be fit enough to cope with the altitude and the general climatic conditions with the oxygen shortage that makes demands on the body, from shortness of breath and headaches to nausea, dehydration and water on the brain and the lungs. Allen, and others, have been mountaineering on Ben Nevis, using altitude chambers and diving into freezing water, and they have been getting help from sports scientists. Their training is scheduled to last for eight months!
For Allen, this event, from 13 April to 6 May 2019, has special meaning. His brother was severely autistic and was assisted by Wooden Spoon. Allen said: “My brother passed away sadly in November, and I’m going to do it for him and all the other children, parents and carers involved in Wooden Spoon.”