03 Nov 2017
Marius van der Westhuizen, a young man, is one of the top referees in the world, known around the rugby world, a referee with a calm, no-fuss manner, effortless positioning and great accuracy.
By Paul Dobson, Moonsport
"Around the rugby world" is no exaggeration. Marius has taken his whistle to a world of countries - Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Brazil, Namibia, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Argentina, Georgia, Russia, France, USA, Canada, Singapore, Hong Kong, Scotland, England, Ireland, Wales, Italy and Dubai. It sounds luxurious but it also hides hard work and dedication. We shall come back to it.
Marius's road to refereeing is an interesting one - a different one. He was not a player who wanted to put back into the game, not an injured player, not a schoolboy referee. It did not even start at rugby.
He was at cricket at Newlands with his parents and saw Andrew Louwrens, a keen photographer, taking pictures and sending pictures off. Louwrens heard a voice behind him: "Wat doen oom?" It was Marius, whose curiosity became an interest.
Louwrens did statistics and game analysis for SA Rugby and he had a squad of schoolboys to help him. Marius became one of them, his father happily transporting him from their Bellville home till he acquired a scooter to transport himself.
From Louwrens he graduated to Peter Schnetler's Soundsure with its programme Fairplay which was used, amongst other things, for the analysis of referees, a system, born in Australia, used widely around the rugby world. Doing this and attending referees' courses and camps, gave him an insight into best practice for referees.
Marius says: "The analysis helped me a great deal as I started out, as my eye was trained technically. It is, however, very different on the pitch and pictures look slightly different when you are on the move. It was a very good foundation that assisted me to move up the ranks very quickly."
And he did move up quickly. "I joined the Western Province Referees' Society early in 2007, completed the courses and did the fitness testing. I refereed my first game on 5 May 2007, Stellenbosch High School vs Paarl Vallei Under-14A. I remember it as if it was yesterday. Nothing I had done up until that point could have prepared me for that!"
On 24 April 2010 at Brookside, he refereed a top club match between Villagers and Durbanville, still the toughest club match, he believes, that he has ever refereed and the assessor that day, Alan Becker, prophesied that he would referee international rugby.
In 2011 he was refereeing provincial rugby in South Africa, in 2012 he refereed Currie Cup rugby, in 2013 he refereed Super Rugby and was on the International Sevens Circuit, refereeing at the Sevens World Cup. In 2014 he went to the IRB's World Under-20 Championship and refereed at the Commonwealth Games.
In 2015 he refereed his first Test match and in that year he was offered full-time referees contract by SA Rugby and accepted the offer. In 2016 he refereed at the Olympic Games.
We asked him some obvious questions.
Highlights? "Being on the Sevens circuit taught me a lot about myself and the 100+ games created some great memories.
"The first of everything is always special. Currie Cup, Super Rugby and Test matches are all special. I can remember at least one thing out of each of those game.
"Being able to do what I do is the highlight of every week for me."
People who helped? "There are so many People who have helped me through my career.
"Early years at Western Province: Ben Theron, Dennis Immelman and Alan Becker.
"At SARU: Mark Lawrence (my current coach), Tappe Henning, who is based in Scotland now, Craig Joubert and Banks Yantolo.
"At World Rugby: Paddy O’Brien, who probably took the biggest leap of faith, by giving me an opportunity on the Sevens circuit, very early in my career, which I will always be thankful for, Lyndon Bray, Joël Jutge and Alain Rolland.
Role models? "Craig Joubert and Wayne Barnes."
Future? "Who knows what the future holds? What I do know is that I will do everything in my power to be prepared for what might come. One day in Rugby refereeing is a very long time. Control only what you can and the rest will take care of itself."
The travelling which seems so attractive to romantics with itchy feet, is not all fun and games.
How many days away from home this year? "Between 150 and 184 every year for the last three years. It is very tough on relationships. My friends and partner are very understanding and I am fortunate they allow me to live out my dream."
And when you are not refereeing? "I love working with my hands and so I fiddle around with renovations and DIY jobs at home and the rest of the time on the golf course."
Likes and dislikes about refereeing?
"It is the best seat in the house. I love it when you can contribute to its being a better game by reading what the game deserves at a certain time. It is sometimes by blowing your whistle but more often than not it is by not blowing the whistle.
"I think the thing I dislike the most is that people think you would favour one team over another. The reality is I don’t care who wins the game or what the score is. I am there to do a job, and that Job is to be fair to both teams. I will make mistakes but I sleep very well at night knowing that the mistakes I did make were honest mistakes.
"I am however very passionate when the Springboks play."
Friendliness amongst referees: "I think in the past it was much more of an individual sport, but over the last couple of years it has taken a team approach with the team of four operating so much better. There is nothing better than to be invited to a braai at someone’s house while you are on tour. That happens more and more these days."
Marius van der Westhuizen was born in Cape Town on 6 January 1984. He was educated at Monte Vista Primary, President High School and the University of South Africa (IT).
Next stop? London. England vs Argentina at Twickenham.