Bryce Lawrence never expected to retire from the job he loves at such an early stage.
The 41-year-old professional rugby referee from Tauranga pulled the plug on his career on Sunday after his 200th first-class match played, between Wellington and Taranaki, 15 years after he whistled his first, between Bay of Plenty and Taranaki, in July 1997.
He became the fourth Kiwi to reach the mark after Paddy O'Brien (221 matches), Paul Honiss (220) and Steve Walsh (210) and will take up a role as the New Zealand Rugby Union high-performance referee reviewer.
Lawrence has been in charge of 25 tests, been involved in two Rugby World Cup tournaments, 60 Super Rugby matches, including last year's final, six Ranfurly Shield challenges, and four national provincial championship finals.
His father, Keith, was also an international referee, from 1985-1991, giving the Lawrence family a special place in the history of rugby refereeing.
Retirement was forced on Lawrence after the vitriol he suffered from the fall-out after the Springboks' loss to the Wallabies in the quarter-finals at last year's Rugby World Cup.
It became so heated and personal it was considered far too great a risk for him to referee in South Africa again and so ended his stellar international career.
"It got pretty bad," Lawrence said. "Not really threats on my family as such, there was a concern, but it was mainly aimed at me through social media. On Facebook they launched a 'get rid of Bryce Lawrence' site and it was pretty nasty.
"They were even from middle-aged women and it has carried on since then. It was disappointing to get them from local people in Tauranga, who I didn't know. To my credit, I didn't reply to anyone until one day I relented and replied to a guy from Papamoa, which I regret because he kept egging me on with more stuff.
"That was absolutely the reason for my career change.
"I got told at the end of the World Cup that I would have a break from test rugby for the Six Nations and I could totally accept that as there has to be a consequence for poor performance.
"I was told I would be brought back in the middle of this year, as I was ranked in the top three or four referees in the world. But because of the political reaction from rugby unions like Australia and South Africa behind the scenes, they dropped me.
"SANZAR used me but not in South Africa, so eventually they said it was getting tough having you in the draw, because we have to keep making changes to keep you in the system when you are not going to South Africa, so see you later. So I knew I was not able to referee at the level I needed to be re-contracted, really - all because of that one game."
Lawrence is refreshingly honest in his appraisal of his performance on that fateful night in Wellington last year and admits outside pressure was a factor.
"I went into the game knowing it was a massive match and I didn't want to overly influence the outcome and that was in the back of my mind. The way that transpired was I didn't make decisions and if I had my time again I would just go out there and do what I normally do, which is just referee and back myself.
"I had four really good games at the World Cup and then I had that. I had outside pressure from pretty senior people from rugby countries behind the scenes that really created my mindset of lacking confidence to deliver what I normally do.
"There was some pretty nasty political stuff going on about that appointment. I refereed Australia versus Ireland and Ireland had won but behind the scenes guys like (Australian chief executive) John O'Neill were kicking up a massive stink. I knew a bit about that and it was enough to affect me, and it probably made me freeze on the biggest stage."
Lawrence admits that was not the first time he had been affected by external pressure getting to him. "At last year's Super Rugby final between Crusaders and Reds there was massive media pressure around me being a non-neutral referee and I let that affect me going into that game. Again, I didn't make decisions and let the outside pressure change what I do."
Lawrence starts his new role in January and will commute to Wellington from his Tauranga base when required.
"It will be a big change, as I have had 10 years basically running myself and now I will be working for the NZRU reviewing, coaching and selecting referees. I am keen to do it but it is something that might just take me a while to find my feet."
The undoubted career highlight for him was the first test between the Springboks and the British and Irish Lions in Durban in 2009.
"This clash between two heavyweights was my biggest appointment and probably my best ever performance at this level. I felt great going into the game and certainly was well prepared. The match had a huge atmosphere but throughout the 80 minutes I felt at peace and in the zone.
"My performance got huge feedback from players and rugby people. I felt proud that my peers recognised it as a top international performance. My bosses at the IRB and NZRU all agreed I'd had a good day at the office, which was very satisfying."
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