Bay of Plenty rugby referee Ryan Waite has been recognised by referee coaches as the region's best. This season, Waite was selected to oversee the Baywide Premier Men's final for the second year running and earlier this month, he was awarded the Martin Teo Shield at the Bay of Plenty Rugby Awards. But Waite hasn't always held a whistle, having made many appearances on the field as a player. Adyn Ogle finds out what prompted the transition and how it continues to test him.
Refereeing rugby has tested Ryan Waite's confidence, but it has kept him involved in the game.
The 35-year-old Tauranga official received the Martin Teo Shield Best Referee Award at the annual Bay of Plenty Rugby Awards this month, on the back of officiating his second consecutive premier club final this year.
Raised in New Plymouth, Waite had been playing rugby since he was 5 but a bad knee injury in 2011 forced him to stop playing.
His father had been a referee in Taranaki but it wasn't until Waite moved to the Bay of Plenty, relocating to Tauranga in 2014, that he began his referee journey.
"I wanted to do something and stay involved in the game," Waite said.
"I got in touch with the Bay union because I had no contacts here and it was a great opportunity to meet people."
Rugby can be a complex game at the best of times, more so for those with the whistle, and Waite's rapid rise through the ranks thrust him into the spotlight.
"It was definitely a challenge and it tested my confidence. You learn game-to-game and you adapt. It is an awesome challenge and confidence is an important part of refereeing. You have to back yourself, you are making decisions in front of everybody.
"In the first few years there were times when I really questioned it, there were sideline issues that have been well documented at schoolboy rugby. I was well capable but the issues were there. I had one school game which is still the hardest game I had to do.
"It is far easier at club level, I understand things are better at school level now, but the worry is you get someone who does a game like that in their first year and they don't referee again. The Bay of Plenty Referees Union is really supportive with this."
Waite says after getting into officiating he quickly found his feet.
"My defining year was 2017 where I started to ref a few more premier games. I came on as a replacement in the semifinal and after that it went to a new level. I wasn't expecting to get a semifinal so quickly. It was reward for a good year, but still a bit of a shock."
Since his transition from player to referee, Waite has been able to develop a good rapport with players, which he says is an important part of the referee's role.
"It comes down to time out there in the middle. You learn to adapt as the situation unfolds. You have to keep a steady head and focus, I think that is one of my strengths, if your head is not in it you make the wrong calls."
Waite says the ultimate reward would be to make the national referee squad, but he is not making it a primary focus.
"I would like to go as far as I can with it. Opportunities are pretty limited at the top level, they are looking for younger referees, even though I am only 35, there are a lot who have good experience but are in their mid-20s. I enjoy what I do at the club level but it would be awesome if the opportunity arose."
Referees are often the target of flak from all directions and Waite says it can be difficult to manage.
"Coaches want consistency, not just in game but week-to-week. As a referee, it is not black and white. You ask things like 'have they broken the law?'. 'Has it had any impact on the game?'. You just want to make sure it runs smoothly and you are not involved too much.
"I feel sorry for referees at top level, there are so many replays. They have tried to make it so black and white when it is not. We can only call what we see. We don't have a TMO at club level and it might be beneficial that we don't."
Bay of Plenty Rugby Union community rugby manager Pat Rae says Waite has continuously worked hard and now leads the region's referees.
"Ryan has been diligently working on his game for the past few years focusing on his processes surrounding managing players as that was an area that was identified by our referee coaches as being a work on for him," Rae says.
"He had a breakout season last year and this year has seen him continue to grow, especially in this space. No longer a weakness, but now a strength, Ryan now leads the Bay of Plenty rugby referees."