Only Māori referee at Rugby World Cup

By James Perry

Ben O'Keeffe will be the only Māori referee at the Rugby World Cup later this year. As a young referee still climbing the world rankings, he's hoping that his inclusion in the Rugby World Cup referees' team gives him the experience to gain selection again in four year's time.

Ben O'Keeffe (Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Whātua) is one of the recently named 12 referees who will officiate at the Rugby World Cup later this year in Japan.

Having first picked up the whistle a decade or so ago while a student at Otago University, O'Keeffe says his selection is a culmination of years of hard work. "It was really 10 to 15 years of just hard work that came to fruition. To reflect on that was fantastic."

He'll be the only Māori referee at the Rugby World Cup later this year, Ngāi Tahu's Glen Jackson having been overlooked for the tournament which begins in September.

He never thought it was possible when he began his refereeing career, saying he just wanted to be involved with the game. He played rugby as a youngster, with 1st XV rugby at Marlborough Boys College, but refereeing was in the blood.

"I sort of followed in my father's footsteps. He refereed a bit of rugby down in Marlborough where I spent most of my childhood, and he said 'look, you should give it a go one day' and I did," 30-year-old O'Keeffe says.

"Then, as I started going through the levels and started doing Super Rugby and test matches, the opportunity, or the goal, or the desire to actually go to a World Cup became a reality."

O'Keeffe made his Super Rugby debut in 2015, and achieved his international debut with the whistle the following year, when Georgia hosted Samoa in Tblisi. 

An Ophthalmologist (expert in diseases of the eye) by profession, he studied Medical Science and Surgery at Otago, graduating in 2012, he says picking up the whistle has provided him with numerous opportunities over the years.

"It allows me to travel all around the world, see some amazing places, meet some great people and then also be involved in some amazing games of rugby, in the middle, surrounded by some incredible players, and then a lot of spectators providing that atmosphere. And I get to call it my job," he says.

O'Keeffe is hoping that more Māori follow in the footsteps of himself and Jackson, particularly players approaching the end of their playing careers.

"I think in rugby it's very common for players once they retire, male and female, Māori, Pasifika they often choose to go into coaching," the Wellington-based referee says.

"They probably don't realise that actually refereeing is a role that you can get into in the weekends to keep you busy, to keep you fit and running around. And potentially there's a career pathway as well."