Regional referee managers – those responsible for training, recruiting, educating and appointing grassroots officials – are feeling the pinch of New Zealand Rugby's financial crisis.
The overall number of referees is also 200 down on last year, although national referees manager Bryce Lawrence remains hopeful that significant shortfall can be mitigated before club rugby resumes next month.
The cutbacks of regional referee managers comes as New Zealand Rugby continues the process of shedding half its staff after projecting a potential $120 million revenue loss due to the impacts of the coronavirus shutdown.
• The fight for rugby's future: Part 1 - The international game and New Zealand Rugby's big All Blacks problem
• The fight for rugby's future: Part II - New Zealand's broken professional model
• The fight for rugby's future: Part III - The changing world of school, club and community rugby
• Inside New Zealand Rugby's fight for survival
Annual provincial union funding grants of $650,000 have dropped by 15 per cent which has led to disputes over player wage cuts and fears some teams may not be able to afford to compete in this year's Mitre 10 Cup competition.
Among the many other cutbacks, the financial squeeze extends to the 22 regional referee managers employed by provincial unions across New Zealand – all of whom work alongside players and coaches to implement laws, ensure the game's safety and recruit essential officials.
During lockdown these regional referee managers led online webinars with leading New Zealand coaches, including All Blacks head coach Ian Foster, Warren Gatland, Tony Brown, Scott McLeod, Clark Laidlaw, and international referees Jaco Peyper and Angus Gardner, to help grow the understanding of the rules of the game.
While redundancy processes are ongoing at all levels, Lawrence confirmed some provincial unions had been forced to cut their regional referee managers.
"All of rugby has taken a big hit and we're working through at New Zealand Rugby level what our staffing needs to look like and the provincial unions are doing the same," Lawrence said.
"At this stage, I know of two provincial unions who have pushed go and started a process with their regional referee managers.
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"All the provincial unions and New Zealand Rugby are committed to referee development but, like everyone, they're trying to work out what staff they can afford.
"The provincial unions are grappling with exactly the same challenges as New Zealand Rugby and many other businesses.
"Everyone in sport is going through a tough period. No one seems to be spared. The sad thing is there will be some great people affected so we're working hard to support the provincial unions and the good people they've got."
The Herald has been told of a national shortage of grassroots referees. Lawrence said there were 1600 registered – 200 fewer than last year – but he was hopeful many would be recruited before junior and schools rugby resumes next month.
In areas such as Auckland membership fees, which Lawrence says cost less than the gear provided, have been waived to try attract more referees.
"Yes, we could do with more referees in every provincial union and it's going to be a short season so we're always looking for mums, dads, parents, ex-players who want to give refereeing a go.
"We're challenged in sport like everyone else that everyone's time is precious and they've got a lot of options. In most cases we have a lot of very strong referee clubs across New Zealand but every one of them could do with 10 or 20 per cent more members. There's a lot of great opportunities for men and women."
Although sideline abuse remains an ongoing concern for volunteers at the grassroots level in particular, Lawrence is adamant this aspect is not a widespread deterrent.
"Every year there is a couple of really quite major and sad incidents that get heavily publicised but in general, with the number of games across New Zealand on a weekend, it's pretty good and most referees are well treated by provincial unions and clubs who are really thankful of their commitment and effort.
"Could it be better? In some cases yes, but it's more of a reflection on the whole of society rather than it being a rugby issue.
"On 98 per cent of rugby on a Saturday it's a positive experience for referees who do it because they love it."
In the professional game, five referees - Ben O'Keeffe, Mike Fraser, Paul Williams, Brendon Pickerill, James Doleman – will rotate roles throughout the 10-week Super Rugby Aotearoa competition, starting on June 13.
The consistency of local officials is expected to allow NZ Rugby to trial new initiatives in policing the frequently flaunted offside line and enforce a more stringent focus on cleaning up the increasingly dangerous breakdown contest.
"It's a unique opportunity that all five of them are going to be involved in every game. For the first time in my memory over a 10-week period we'll be able to have the same team of referees together so it will feel like a super team every week."