James Fitzgerald, a former member of Dublin University and Athy RFC and a product of the IRFU Referee Development pathway, has been appointed to the IRB Asia Panel.
James Fitzgerald cut his refereeing teeth at a match between Athy and Cill Dara but recently took charge of China v Thailand in the Asia 5 Nations. In this article, he tells us about refereeing in the Arabian Gulf.
James started his rugby career in St. Andrew’s College before playing for Dublin University and then Athy RFC. An injury led him to start refereeing at the age of 29 and his first game was between the Under-16s from Athy and Cill Dara – a real local derby!
James took the IRFU Referee Foundation Course through the Association of Leinster Branch Referees and never looked back.
His career took him to Dubai in 2006 and his refereeing experience led to him taking up the whistle locally. He continued to referee and found himself on the IRB Sevens Circuit where he met up with fellow Irish referees, including David Keane, the IRFU Referee Development Officer who ran the first course James took.
This season saw James rewarded with his first international match, another ‘local derby’ but this time between China and Thailand in the Asia 5 Nations.
James has provided us with an interesting insight into refereeing in his local area – the Arabian Gulf:
Refereeing rugby in the Arabian Gulf is full of surprises. Some are pleasant, others not so much.
The first surprise is the heat. Well, I suppose it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that at the beginning of September, when the season starts, the temperatures are well over 40 degrees, regardless of whether you play in the day or at night.
But even though your mind might be prepared for it, your body will still be shocked to the point of demanding you find a shady area to curl up and die.
Let’s just say Law 5.7 (g) is one we know well and we’re not afraid to use it!
Another surprise is the amount of rugby that is out here. Although mostly the domain of ex-pats from the world’s foremost rugby-playing nations, the administrators of rugby in the gulf are trying to evangelise by introducing the game into schools attended by locals, with mixed results.
But there is certainly no shortage of Brits, Aussies, Kiwis, Jaapies, French (in fact, there is a club based in Dubai called the French Frogs), Yanks, Canucks, Paddies and South Sea islanders to make up the numbers.
Currently, I am on the Gulf Premiership Panel (as well as the IRB ARFU Asia Panel) which means I travel around the continent reffing games in places as exotic as Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and Oman as well as in the United Arab Emirates from Abu Dhabi through Dubai and up to Sharjah.
There are also teams in Saudi Arabia, Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Lebanon that we help out if they are short a ref, which is most of the time.
This is not exactly rugby heartland but it does afford one the chance to travel to some pretty interesting places, which beats a trip to Edenderry on a wet Sunday afternoon in November.
Another surprise was turning up to Kuwait Nomads Rugby Club and being told this barren, grassless wasteland was the pitch. Sand was falling out of me for a week afterwards.
The post-match function in the dry state of Kuwait was interesting – never underestimate the ingenuity of man, particularly when that man is a thirsty rugby player.
What they do is they buy crates of alcohol-free beer which is freely on sale at the supermarket, add yeast and basically reverse the process, leaving the mixture to ferment in five gallon drums for a few weeks. The result is a powerful and tooth-curling home brew that makes you grateful for the relatively liberal regime in the UAE.
Being part of the ARFU (the IRB’s regional association for Asia) also brings its opportunities and in the two years I have been here I have been sent on refereeing appointments to Sri Lanka, Thailand and Hong Kong.
I am currently on the IRB Asia 5 Nations Panel and recently reffed my first Test match, between China and Thailand. We also provide the touch judges and in-goal judges for the IRB Sevens Series in Dubai.
I still get to watch the Magners League and Heineken Cup matches on TV here and I have to admit I get a little pang of homesickness when I see the crowds huddled and half-cut at a freezing Thomond Park, Sportsground or Ravenhill as the ARLB’s finest stand firm against the wind, rain and spectators’ abuse.
With the temperatures hitting a pleasant and always-sunny 30 degrees here these days, perhaps my hankering for Leinster rugby is the biggest surprise of all.
Being a referee can take you to some very interesting places!