Living on the peripheral areas of the main centres of Hawke's Bay has its challenges, but the astuteness of a rugby parent has resulted in a boon for Te Aute College.

"Being a small boarding school with such a rich history on the outskirts of Hastings, the team struggle to compete with the larger well-resourced schools in the region and so welcome any help," wrote Heath Ingle who entered the school's E graders into the Specsavers Ultimate Investec Super Rugby Referee Training Experience competition.

The team of 19 boys has received $1000 prize, free eye examinations for each team member and glasses for those who require them from the sponsors.

"With this team having a reasonable season, this prize will definitely help them strive to play at an even higher level," said Heath of the national competition that lured more than more than 20 entries.


Consequently, Super Rugby and test referee Ben O'Keeffe conducted a training session at the college grounds on Wednesday.

The tireless team of boarders and day scholars lapped up O'Keeffe's tips and tricks in the tradition of the Te Aute legacy former students have moulded.

The boys' Māori boarding school's graduates who went on to acquire higher rugby honours include former All Blacks Norm Hewitt, Piri Weepu and Kane Hames.

The other illustrious graduate in the code is Riki Flutey, a former England and British and Irish Lions utility back.

Specsavers New Zealand country director Brendan Thompson says the E graders deserve the accolades.

"We are proud to be able to help them on their journey and give each team member eye exams to ensure their vision is in check and give them the confidence they need on and off the field," Thompson says.

Specsavers and New Zealand Rugby have forged a three-year partnership to ensure the eye health of Super Rugby referees is covered, guaranteeing prescription glasses to any team member who requires them.

O'Keeffe, a locum at the eye department of the Wellington Hospital, is in his fourth year of Super Rugby officiating and has 11 test matches up his sleeve, including the South Africa v Argentina clash in Durban last month.


"I'm proud to be able to visit Te Aute and have the opportunity to pass on some knowledge to the players, coaches and referees. It's great to be able to meet the next generation of Te Aute rugby and provide support," says the 29-year-old who covered his first Super Rugby match as a late call-up four years ago when Napier whistle blower Chris Pollock got injured before the Highlanders v Crusaders fixture in Dunedin.

Former international referee Chris Pollock, of Hawke's Bay, unsuspectingly gave Ben O'Keeffe his debut after picking up an ankle injury. Photo / File
Former international referee Chris Pollock, of Hawke's Bay, unsuspectingly gave Ben O'Keeffe his debut after picking up an ankle injury. Photo / File

"I was more worried about my mate Chris Pollock who had rolled an ankle in the morning so I had realised he wasn't going to be able to referee," says O'Keeffe, who was mentally psyching himself up for a debut that year and was pencilled in for a game a month later.

Finding out around midday he was going to be the man in the middle six hours later had its challenges but knowing he had the confidence of Pollock and the assistants eased any tension he might have harboured.

He considers it an honour to visit and share his understanding of the game while trying to enlighten young minds and their tutors.

"I remember being that age and looking up to the All Blacks, the referees and the people who were involved with the sport so I do still feel that connection and I do understand that responsibility and that's why I feel so privileged to be in a position where I can do that."

O'Keeffe hopes he has impressed something that Te Aute youngsters will take with them to another level.

Bred in Blenheim, O'Keeffe gravitated towards officiating because his father, Peter, now living in the United Kingdom, used to control matches up to provincial representative level in his heyday.

"Like most New Zealanders we pick up sport pretty early ... I started playing when I was younger and played first XV and under-21s," he says, emphasising he was by no means a "fantastic" player.

Running out the flag and water to his father was a given on match days but it wasn't until his second year at the University of Otago in Dunedin that he had the opportunity to run on to the park to control a match himself.

The promise of a rewarding career path and travel on weekends enticed him to take up the challenge while also breaking the monotony of studying.

A grinning O'Keeffe recalls stumbling on to his first refereeing match as a 19-year-old between Alhambra Union and Green Island Under-21 sides in Dunedin on a Saturday afternoon.

"Back then we didn't have any cellphones in those days," he says, revealing he had been sent an email on a Monday and only checked it on a Saturday morning to discover he was asked to control that game 1.10pm.

"I looked at my watch and it was 10 to one [12.50pm] so I just pretended I was warming up to make it look like they were actually waiting for me," he says with a laugh. "I quickly grabbed some boots, ran over, had a whistle and I asked the coach for a watch."

Camaraderie, he stresses, is a key component in sport and something he knows is pronounced in the international arena.

"To see it all the way down to the kids in New Zealand is very special so I think I'm in a position now where I can be giving back to some of those regions. It's a privilege to be here," he says of his Te Aute trip.

Te Aute College E grade players Raymond Matene-Rink (left) and Bailey Waru watch as teammates perform a powhiri for Ben O'Keeffe at the school marae. Photo / Paul Taylor
Te Aute College E grade players Raymond Matene-Rink (left) and Bailey Waru watch as teammates perform a powhiri for Ben O'Keeffe at the school marae. Photo / Paul Taylor

However, O'Keeffe says not only does he impart his knowledge but also garners information from the youngsters to boost his portfolio.

"The kids around New Zealand are pretty special rugby players so it's usually an exciting day," he says. "Every game offers different pictures and different things to learn so after every game we do a full review."

His father is proud of his accomplishments and still offers him some advice "but it's nothing great so just as before, I'm still always learning".

"No matter what level, it's still challenging and exciting and I like being part of it."

Like his father, O'Keeffe believes he's a good communicator who has a propensity to manage a game well.

"I think if you're a referee in New Zealand you can learn technically the laws of the game but it is really important your personality comes out and they know who you are on the field."

He says the elite officials in the country, such as Glen Jackson, of Bay of Plenty, Welshman Nigel Owens and Englishman Wayne Barnes, have desirable traits that aspiring referees can add to their templates to establish a sense of identity.

He went into the Super Rugby arena not knowing what to expect until he had the whistle in his hand in the middle of the park.

"It's one of the best competitions in the world," he says. "When you have a New Zealand derby the speed and skills of the players is just incredible."

To find himself only a metres away from the action keeps him on his toes for 80 minutes with snappy decisions.

"It's a very intense 80 minutes but when you walk off the field and reflect on the game it's quite an amazing feeling."

O'Keeffe says test matches shift that energy, emotion and intensity to another level.

"I've been around the world to some of the biggest stadiums — Twickenham in London, Ellis Park in Johannesburg — which hold 50,000 to 80,000 people so the atmosphere you can cut with a knife."

A grinning O'Keeffe finds traction with the public view that "you have to be nuts to want to be a referee".

Despite the rollercoaster ride of team and public perceptions the gains for officials eclipse any negativity that may arise from situations.

"With all the things you learn and the feedbacks you receive after the game from coaches, players and the media surpasses the experience you get."

Not married or having the responsibilities of raising a family, O'Keeffe is still living the dream and fulfilling his passion of rugby globally although he accepts his status will change.