12 Dec, 14:42
Prop Cian Healy is expected to miss the start of the 2014 RBS 6 Nations after undergoing surgery on his injured ankle on Wednesday.
He took up refereeing when he suffered a hand injury which ruled him out of playing for 18 months. He was student at the University of Glasgow at the time and his father, who was a referee, persuaded him to pick up the whistle to maintain fitness levels before returning to play.
"I needed surgery on my hand but could run after six to eight weeks so thought I would give it a try. But instead of going back to playing, I kept at the refereeing," he said.
Two main factors contributed to him hanging up the playing boots for good. "Firstly, I really enjoyed the experience and secondly, I saw an opportunity to get to the higher echelons of the game in refereeing.
"I've an ambitious personality and whereas I was never going to play in the Heineken Cup as a player, I thought I could do it through refereeing."
While Wilkinson did most of his officiating in Scotland, the IRFU and the USRFR (Ulster Society of Rugby Football Referees) tracked his progress and provided him with a development pathway.
"They flew me back to Ulster three or four times a year because I didn't know where I was going to end up when I completed university.
"When I did finish my studies, the Referee Development Officer job at the Ulster Branch came up and I moved back to take up that post in late 2005. The Branch and the USRFR helped me progress to higher levels of refereeing when I returned."
The Enniskillen man's role as Rugby Development Officer means he is primarily responsible for the recruitment and training of referees in Ulster and works in conjunction with the USRFR and the Ulster Branch.
"I try to bring referees into a structure we've set up. There's an induction programme and training, and once they're qualified and deemed to be competent, they gain full membership to the USRFR.
"Then it's a matter of developing them as quickly as their ability will allow them. We tailor programmes for each individual and try to put them in groups and bring them through together.
"Ultimately, I'm trying to get them into a programme called IPAS (Inteprovincial Appointment System), where people are nominated for the All-Ireland League list. They can then get selected into the IRFU National Panel where David McHugh carries on their development," he explained.
The 29-year-old acknowledges that referees face challenges at all levels but maintains that it is very rewarding.
"Each referee has their own personality traits and strengths and weaknesses so they have to deal with different challenges.
"Composure and nerves are obstacles, while at the higher levels of the game the fitness levels required are phenomenal. The biggest challenge for any referee is to get the players on side so you get the players to do what you want.
"I started when I was 19, which is quite young, so it was quite daunting going in to the changing room before a match to check the studs of older players, some of whom had been playing rugby for longer than I'd been alive!
"So it was difficult trying to come through but I had to deal with that youth and inexperience on my side."
Wilkinson though progressed quickly through the ranks and shortly after returning to Ulster, he was appointed to run the line in a Heineken Cup clash between Leicester and Stade Francais at Welford Road.
"It was a baptism of fire. It was a round 6 match and it was a pool decider to see who went through to the quarter-finals and who went crashing out of Europe.
"Alan Lewis was the referee that day and not only did he have to referee a very difficult match, but he also had to babysit me for 80 minutes!"
Wilkinson has many other milestones in his career to date, his debut as a referee in a professional match came in 2007 when Munster played Saracens in Cork in a pre-season friendly.
He made his PRO12 debut as a ref in the Glasgow Warriors v Scarlets match in April 2008. Other highlights include his first Challenge Cup match and his International debut when Georgia hosted Romania in the Nations Cup in March last year.
"The match in Georgia really sticks out in my mind because six months later those two teams played each other again in the World Cup finals," he added.
Wilkinson must find the time outside his regular working hours to train himself in order to maintain his fitness.
"I try to do four sessions per week, two in the gym and two on the pitch.
"I also spend an hour or two going over laws and communication - basically planning how I'm going to get the players to do what I want them to do during the game. It's a busy lifestyle but for me it is well worth putting in the hours."
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