Bryce Lawrence knows the highs and the lows of refereeing rugby. But he still loves it and wants more people to try it.

"It's just fun. You get fit, you can socialise afterwards and you'll be really well educated about rugby."

Lawrence is the national referee manager for New Zealand Rugby (NZR). He's always lived in Tauranga and continues to do so, although he spends a lot of time at NZR headquarters in Wellington.

His job is to oversee the recruiting of referees, their education in the role, the reviews of their performances and to schedule match appointments up to Mitre 10 Cup level, then decide which New Zealand whistlers become professional and control matches at Super Rugby level and beyond.

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The job is his blood. His father, Keith, was a test referee for six years till 1991 and then did the job Bryce now has. Lawrence junior controlled the first of his 204 first class matches in 1997 and stepped off the field at the highest level in 2012.

Top referees Paul Honiss, Bryce Lawrence nad Glen Jackson. Photo / Peter Williams
Top referees Paul Honiss, Bryce Lawrence nad Glen Jackson. Photo / Peter Williams

He was brutally honest about the reason for that. By his own admission, he performed poorly in the 2011 Rugby World Cup quarter final between South Africa and Australia.

South Africa lost and the vitriol directed at him took its toll.

"It got pretty bad," he told the Bay of Plenty Times in 2012.

"On Facebook they launched a 'get rid of Bryce Lawrence' page and it was pretty nasty."

Even now, six years on, he sees that kind of criticism as an obstacle to attracting new recruits.

"We're trying to promote the positive aspects of being a referee. Some people absolutely love it. It's their sport and they'll do it for 20 or 30 or 40 years and they love what they do for the community. Others don't like the criticism the top guys are getting, and they go and play golf."

There are almost unlimited opportunities for referees.

"In the Bay of Plenty last season there were well over a thousand games of rugby that had to be refereed, and that's not counting all the sevens tournaments. And there's probably only about 70 active referees."

He's amazed at the commitment some of them put in.

"When I started you refereed from February to about June. Now with all the sevens events, you can go 11-12 months of the year. We had one guy, Peter Morgan, an ex-club player, he refereed 72 games of rugby last season .. and he loved it."

"You can also just make it a summer sport and do sevens. If you referee touch, you'll be great at sevens."

By coincidence or otherwise, Tauranga is now the power base for New Zealand refereeing. As well as Lawrence, former test referee and now the NZR professional manager, Paul Honiss, and the country's top active whistler, Glen Jackson – named last week as Referee of the Year for the fifth time – all live here.

Another of the country's six professionals, Nick Briant, also resides here as do international TMO Shane McDermott and the 2011 Rugby World Cup final referee, Craig Joubert, formerly of South Africa, but now a referee development manager with World Rugby.

Criticism of a referee's performance is a special bugbear of those at the top of the trade.

Jackson gets annoyed at the unfair and ill-informed comments.

"That hurts, because we never have a say," he says. "It's always a big topic of conversation around World Cup time. Who looks after us?"

There's a protocol laid down by World Rugby, SANZAAR and NZR that referees don't comment on their performances. The top whistlers themselves think there's nothing wrong with referees appearing on TV panel shows to explain a few things, but wonder about the practicalities of it.

"You'd have to do it every single game," says Lawrence. "Every game now there's someone saying there's something wrong. So where do you draw the line? Would a referee who does 25 games a year really want to front up 25 times?"

He wonders about the consequences of referees being too honest.

"If we front up and say we made a couple of mistakes, the calls would go out to drop him. We can't drop everyone who makes a mistake. There'd be no one to referee the game."

Honiss remembers a short-lived experiment some years ago.

"They did interviews with the referee after the game because the media wanted it and it lasted three or four weeks. That's because the referee's answer was usually something like 'Well I haven't seen the video yet so I can't comment properly' so it just died a natural death."

But Lawrence does think referees need more support from the game's governing bodies, whether it be NZR, SANZAAR or World Rugby.

"I think we are too soft about it. When a referee is being bagged we should front that. We need to educate people. Most rugby people just want to know why, why was he right or why was he wrong? And if one of our guys makes a mistake, we have to be brave enough to admit it. It doesn't make him a bad person, it just means he got it wrong."

World Rugby's policy is that it doesn't usually comment publicly on referee decisions and no employee of NZR, such as Lawrence is, can comment on a referee's performance in an All Blacks test.

Honiss does recall a recent incident when World Rugby did make a statement.

"They came out after the England-All Blacks game and said the decision for the offside (which led to a controversial disallowed try) was correct. But that was almost a one-off. They don't do it often.

Lawrence agrees: "It is messy, who speaks about a decision."

But he also wonders if the media want to hear the real story.

"We always say to Jeff Wilson, 'Why don't you get referees on your programme more?' I think they had Jacko on once this year. Why don't you have them on every month? Maybe it will just ruin a good story.

"No New Zealand referee minds being criticised when it's correct. We have to be brave enough to take it on the chin and say we made a mistake. But when it's unfair criticism, that's what grates me."

He says it's hard enough getting referees for the community game anyway.

"When people see the top guys getting bagged, you must think 'Why would I do that?' But we do need to change the image. It's actually a great career."

Lawrence and Honiss are both keen to see ex-first-class players take up the whistle.

"They know so much about the game already. That knowledge is hard for a non-player to pick up. They're so coachable and generally so fit. They're good at relationships on the field because they know how players like to be treated," says Lawrence.

Currently Jackson and former Chiefs, Crusaders and Bay of Plenty halfback Jamie Nutbrown are the only former first-class players among the best referees in the country, although Nutbrown isn't on the professional panel next year. Dan Waenga, who played for Hawkes Bay and Chiefs in the No 10 jersey, has just been appointed to the national panel for 2019 Heartland and Mitre 10 Cup games.

The switch isn't easy.

"It was the 80 minutes' mental exertion I wasn't expecting," says Jackson. "Even as a No 10, when you're always in the game, you've had week to plan all the moves. As a ref, it's an 80-minute struggle to be right all the time."

Jackson believes it's no coincidence the best players-turned-referee were all either halfbacks or first fives. There are likely to be three former players on the Rugby World Cup panel next year. Jackson himself, along with former Reds halfback Nic Berry and Englishman Karl Dixon who played No 9 for Harlequins.

Both he and Lawrence agree the switch from controlling the game as an inside back means the move to controlling a game with the whistle is more straightforward.

"Not every player has man management and communication skills because all they did was play the game," Lawrence says. "But they are the greatest skills for a ref to have."