29 Sep 2017
When the Springboks and the Wallabies are lined up for their anthems at Free State Stadium on Saturday, standing between them will be a medical doctor, whose job it will be to help them to play fairly and honestly in their Rugby Championship match. He is Ben O'Keeffe of New Zealand.
By Paul Dobson, Moonsport
In the two teams, there will be players older than the 28-year-old referee from Wellington - Francois Louw, Tendai Mtawarira, Chiliboy Ralepelle, Stephen Moore, Tatafu Polota-Nau, Sekope Kepu and Will Genia. That does not happen often at Test level, but then O'Keeffe started young and clearly is one of the most talented referees in the world.
A North Islander by birth, O'Keeffe's growing up was a ferry-ride across the Cook Strait on South Island, the mainland to South Islanders. From Marlborough Boys' College, O'Keeffe went further south - to Otago University in Dunedin where he read medicine. And now he is back in the south of North Island in Wellington.
When he got to university O'Keeffe was still playing but he then decided to follow his father Peter's example and become a rugby referee. He was 19 years of age. In the nine years since then, he has developed enormously.
He graduated as a doctor in 2012, did his two years of post-graduate training then rotations in the medical and surgical fields and is now a practising ophthalmologist in Wellington.
As his medical knowledge and experience developed, so did his refereeing.
In 2013 he refereed his first provincial match - Auckland vs Bay of Plenty.
In 2014 he refereed at the Junior World Championship in New Zealand when other referees included Marius van der Westhuizen, Angus Gardner and Federico Anselmi. England beat South Africa in the final and the referee for that prestigious match was Ben O'Keeffe of New Zealand.
In 2015 he refereed his first Super Rugby match - Highlanders vs Crusaders.
In 2016 he refereed his first Test - Samoa vs Georgia.
In 2017 he refereed his first Six Nations match, Italy vs France, his first Test in South Africa, South Africa vs France, and now he is appointed to his first Rugby Championship match - South Africa vs Australia. This is O'Keeffe's first stay in Bloemfontein though he has been to South Africa frequently over the last two years for Tests and Super Rugby. A big year - 2017 - and it's not over yet.
In 2016 O'Keeffe became a full-time professional referee but he has been able to continue looking after troublesome eyes in Wellington where adjustments have been made so that he can, as it were, keep his eye in.
O'Keeffe speaks of balancing the two careers, medicine and rugby:
"Before I was a full-time professional referee, I was able to balance both jobs by flying out for games most weekends and working Monday to Friday during the week as a house surgeon in the hospital. I managed to juggle this quite well with the help of my colleagues who were happy to change shifts to help me and some very understanding hospital managers but it took a lot of planning, preparation and meant my referee training were either very early in the morning or late at night.
"Since turning professional over the last two years I have been involved in rugby competitions that have taken me away for weeks on end around the world which made it too hard to commit full-time to both medicine and rugby.
"Fortunately, the eye department in Wellington is very accommodating and arranges locum work for me when I am back home in between games. This still means that I can focus my full attention on preparing and debriefing for my games but also provides the balance that I think is important to have when involved in professional sport."
Mercifully for both careers, this busy man is not married.
Already there are highlights to his career. He lists two - "refereeing the June test series in South Africa with the French and South African anthems sung by the crowd and the airbus that flew over Ellis Park in the third test.
"My first tier 1 international game at Murrayfield when Scotland played Argentina. The crowd and the anthems were electric."
Rugby is not something you do on your own and he has had help along the way:
"Many coaches, players and supporters throughout my career have always offered some good advice which is important to take on board and I have been lucky enough to always have had a good support network around me with my mentors and coaches that I had in Otago, Shane McKenzie and now Colin Hawke, Bryce Lawrence and Lyndon Bray as part of the New Zealand Rugby and Super Rugby set up."
His particular role model is Jonathon White, "a New Zealand test referee who was also a doctor and showed me there is a pathway to be able to achieve at both".
He would, of course, not be as involved as he is if he did not enjoy refereeing.
He says of it: "I like how the environment is very professional now and we have to analyse games and train to be in top condition so that we can referee all games that we do to the highest level.
"I do enjoy the pressure environments and the challenges that refereeing any match, not just test matches provide, and I think coming off a game mentally and physically drained after eighty minutes of rugby knowing that I contributed to both teams playing a great game is a special feeling.
"Lastly the places we get to go to and the people we get to meet through rugby makes me feel so privileged to be doing what I do."
Ben Dennis O'Keeffe was born in Auckland on 3 January 1989.
All rugby would wish him well this Saturday in Bloemfontein.