Leading New Zealand rugby referee Ben O'Keeffe has revealed the regular abuse he gets online from fans, and how he learned to deal with it on his rise through the ranks.

The 30-year-old recently refereed at the Rugby World Cup, where he performed well enough as a lead referee in pool play - including the pivotal Japan v Scotland clash - to be given assistant referee duties for the knockout stages, including the final.

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However, with such a platform also increasing the amount of scrutiny and onlookers, O'Keeffe has revealed that he often has to deal with abuse from fans online.

That included his most notable moment at the World Cup, when he came under fire from Australians for seemingly offering a low five to a Fijian player in their game against the Wallabies.

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Speaking on the Rugby Bricks podcast, O'Keeffe spoke about the reaction he usually gets after a game.

"The sad thing is you'll get a handful of people who can easily take the time and search for you on Facebook – even though I'm as private as I can be – and still send you a private message," he said in a wide-ranging interview.

"I often joke that if I'm in South Africa and I receive three messages saying how bad my performance was, I reckon I've had a pretty good game.

"When it gets to 10 messages, you go 'ok, I've done something wrong'."

Referee Ben O'Keeffe speaks with Yu Tamura of Japan during the Rugby World Cup. Photo / Getty
Referee Ben O'Keeffe speaks with Yu Tamura of Japan during the Rugby World Cup. Photo / Getty

O'Keeffe has made a fast rise through the refereeing ranks, having made his Super Rugby debut in 2015 and international debut later that year.

He said that when he first started in Super Rugby, getting a thicker skin to what people would say about him was the biggest things to get used to.

"I thought when I refereed my first Super Rugby game 'yes the game is a little bit quicker but it's still a game of rugby, I can manage this'.

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"The biggest difference was the external stuff – the social media, your name in the paper on the weekend, the comments on the website – it took a lot of time to get used to not looking at that and not be affected by it, because we're all human beings.

"If someone tells me how poor my performance was, in a lot brighter language than that, you take it to heart early on, and I definitely did.

"That was a big thing to get over."