At a couple of minutes before 2pm last Saturday, Stephen Huinga was standing near the corner flag of the No1 ground at Bell Park in Pakuranga, the home of the Pakuranga Rugby Club.
A black whistle lanyard wrapped around his hand; a white digital watch on his wrist; a notebook and pen tucked neatly in his knee-high sock: all the accoutrements marked him out as the referee for the game about to start. All that was missing was the 30 players.
"No matter how many times I tell them to be on the field five minutes before," he said, "they are never here."
If he was feeling frustrated, his tone of voice did not betray it, though there was plenty of vigour about the blast he gave on the whistle to summon the opposing sides from their warm-up sessions.
The effect was hardly electric. Only gradually did the players appear, dragging their spongy hit shields back to the changing sheds. It took a good seven minutes more before both the teams were on the field, ready for the ref to blow his whistle again for kickoff in the pre-season premier reserves clash between the local lads and the visitors from College Rifles.
One of a panel of about 200 referees who officiate at games all over the region each weekend, Huinga has learned not to make a big thing of such small displays of defiance. His gentle and easy-going manner is the basis of the authority that he exercises on the field; refereeing, he'll tell you, is not a job for nitpickers.
Beginning his fifth season on the whistle, Huinga, whose day job is with the public service, admits he never excelled at footy. The 34-year-old, raised in Ruatoria, played a bit at Onehunga High School, but "I found the island boys were a lot bigger and faster than me".
He says refereeing gives him the chance to "still be part of the spectacle. It's a bit of a cliche, but you get the best seat in the house to watch the young talent coming through".
Saturday didn't seem like rugby weather. The Pakuranga field was hard and slightly brown, and the digital scoreboard was hard to read in the bright sunlight. The late summer heat enforced a game of 20-minute quarters, and the ref was sweating freely as he downed a drink during pauses in play.
The ideal referee is invisible, Huinga says; not blowing the whistle can be more important than blowing it.
"Spectators sometimes expect you to blow every marginal offside or forward pass but if there's no effect on the game, nine times out of 10 you would let it go to keep the game flowing. It's important not to spoil the spectacle for the people who have turned up to watch."
The backchat and occasional abuse - refs wryly call it "unsolicited advice" - are all part of the job, he says, and "it goes in one ear and out the other".
"If you call the game fairly and communicate well with the players they will respect you. I have stopped little kids' games when spectators are running on the field and yelling at their kids. Some of the things they say are incredible and you look at the little kids' eyes and they look ashamed and embarrassed."
He's even invoked the Almighty when talking to intemperate spectators of Pacific origin, who he knows are likely to be churchgoers. "I tell them, 'God is watching and he loves this game. He doesn't want to hear any bad words coming out of your mouth', and they will usually say, 'Sorry, ref'."
Smudge McNeilage, the referee manager of Auckland Rugby Referees Association, says he's always on the lookout for new blood. He stresses that abuse has become the exception rather than the rule and he is keen to see more people volunteering. "People used to think of a referee as being a person who was too old to play any more. But I now have 12- and 13-year olds coming to join referees because they know that there is a path for them.
"Two years ago I had an Under-15 referee who refereed the Under-20 final at Eden Park. I don't know what you were like, but at 15 I couldn't control myself, let alone 30 or 40 testosterone-overloaded blokes in a rugby final."
• The association is holding an introductory evening for new and aspiring referees tonight at 7 at College Rifles RFC, Haast St, Remuera.