"We Loved Every Second of It – Living and Breathing Rugby"

Pictured left to right: Former Shanagher Morrison Referee Fund scholarship recipients Emily Hsieh, Kahlil Harrison, Amelia Luciano and Gavin McCandless.

In the spring of 2014, the two of us, Kahlil Harrison and Emily Hsieh, had the opportunity to travel abroad to Stellenbosch, South Africa, on the Shanagher Morrison Referee Fund scholarship and be full-time referee students at the South Africa Rugby Union Academy (formerly known as Maties Referee Academy) for nine weeks. The experience was amazing to say the least. It was challenging yet inspiring, simplistic and surreal yet immersive, and incredibly demanding yet rewarding. Living and breathing rugby 24/7, but more specifically the life of a referee, provided us with a rich experience that undoubtedly accelerated our growth and development as rugby referees. There are quite a few aspects of the South Africa Rugby Union Academy and its surrounding environment that benefited and allowed us to improve as rugby officials at an accelerated pace. These include the youthful referee team atmosphere, quantity and quality of rugby on the Western Cape, full-time student athlete lifestyle, coaches who were more than “just” coaches, surrounding facilities, and our own and others’ attitude and mindset about rugby. Through this and much more, both of us gained invaluable experience that bettered us not only as referees and active members of the international rugby community but also as human beings.

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Team Atmosphere
Living with four strangers introduced some challenges ranging from navigating clashing personalities to deciding whose turn it was to buy bread for the house. However, it also came with some distinct and unique advantages particularly because all five people in the house were there for the same reason – for rugby. We constantly pushed each other to be better referees on and off the pitch, discussed various aspects of rugby, and encouraged each other. Even though there was only one ref on the pitch during a match, there was always a team in the background providing support for each other. The importance and benefit of always having peers and friends to turn to, struggle with, and experience the academy with cannot be understated!

Practice, Practice, Practice
On any given day we refereed three or four games. Compared to the one or two games per week in the US, we had the chance to grow faster due to the sheer volume of games. In two months each of us had reffed about 20 “first-class” matches and nearly 50 more “casual” games at various trials, practices, and scrimmages. This situation enabled us to experiment with rapid and fluid goal-setting as well since we could choose one or two aspects of our game to focus on for one match and then choose entirely different aspects to focus on for the next match without worrying about the scarcity of reffing opportunities. We were always trying to improve, and daily practice helped immensely.

Student Athlete Lifestyle
Every day of the week was dedicated to rugby in some way. We spent full days, from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m., training like elite referees so that we could perform like elite referees. A typical weekday was packed with various activities including aerobic fitness, weight training, on/off-field vision training, mental toughness, postgame feedback, law sessions, film sessions, and of course, refereeing rugby. We also had a few hours during the day with no rugby-specific activities going on and we used that time to relax our bodies and minds and prepare for the next item on the agenda. Saturday mornings were spent  
refereeing one or two high school matches and afternoons were spent with senior-level competition. Again, these were long days that saw us out the door at 7 a.m. and not back home until 6 p.m. There was no training or rugby on Sundays so we used that day for rest and relaxation. Sundays were also used for reviewing the previous day’s matches, discussing questionable calls and law application with roommates, and looking forward to the week ahead. Even on our day of rest rugby was always on our mind.

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Hendrik and Marius, our coaches, provided feedback and advice for us every step of the way. On the pitch they were honest about what did well or needed to improve on, facilitated debates between the referees, and when necessary gave the final word on what calls should or shouldn’t be. Off the pitch they acted as academy directors, appointment selectors, drivers, braai planners, and more. The two of them made it so that all we needed to worry about was performing when our name was called.

Facilities, Attitude and Mindset about Rugby
Rugby in South Africa is a living and breathing creature of its own. It rises with excitement, quiets with disappointment, and celebrates with electric energy. The sport is part of the country’s and its people’s national identity, and they surely treat it with respect and integrity. If you can imagine the NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL, and MLS all combined into one union whose athletes all play the same sport, that is what rugby felt like in Stellenbosch. Rugby showed its face everywhere – from TVs in supermarkets to teams in prisons. The land was scattered with pitches with a frequency as high as all the baseball diamonds and soccer/football fields here in America combined. Most pitches were equipped with stadiums, and if not stadiums at least an area with stadium-like seating for fans in the community. Rugby was the language spoken by rivaling ethnic groups in some areas and it was sometimes treated as a matter of war. Since so much is invested into its infrastructure, people’s livelihood, money, and careers, there was a constant pressure to perform, but the immersion also provided constant positive feedback and motivated us to succeed. We each went to South Africa with big dreams and left with even more ambitious goals and the tools to accomplish them. We loved every second of it – living and breathing rugby.

Khalil and Emily were only able to partake in this immersive experience because of donors like you! The Shanagher Morrison Referee Fund covers all costs including travel, lodging, tuition and living expenses for scholarship recipients and is funded by donations from rugby fans and supporters. By making a gift to the Shanagher Morrison Referee Fund, you can change a young referee’s life. Make a gift today. Be sure to select Shanagher Morrison Referee Fund from the program dropdown menu.

Are you interested in applying for the Shanagher Morrison Referee Fund scholarship? Click here to learn more and apply before December 23, 2016.