Rob Watson Refs in Georgia

Photos: Shota (Left), Rob Watson, Toko (Right)

Rob Watson has been a prominent member of Enniskillen Rugby Club for many years, firstly as a player, and then serving in various coaching roles within the club. In recent years, however, as he put his playing days behind him, he has exercised his love of the game through domestic refereeing, and had some major achievements along the way. However, most of Rob’s career experiences will struggle to top the most recent of his ventures, as he took part in an IRFU exchange programme that saw him travel to Georgia at the edge of Eastern Europe to referee a domestic fixture.

“Having retired from playing rugby a good number of years ago I took up refereeing and followed in the footsteps of many local ex players, Robin Hogg, Victor Outram, David Wilkinson Senior and Junior. David Wilkinson Jr is now refereeing professionally and is in charge of developing and mentoring new referees in Ulster onto the national panel of Irish referees. Having been mentored by David Wilkinson Jr over the past years I recently got my first taste of refereeing rugby on an international stage, and what a fantastic experience it was.

“The IRFU have an exchange program with the Georgian Rugby Union, a country that has taken massive strides forward in terms of rugby playing numbers and development of the national team. Each year Irish referees travel to Georgia to officiate, mainly in the knockout stages of the top Georgian league, The BIG TEN. The BIG TEN teams are funded by the government, and because of the this each of the teams field a large number of international, professional and semi-professional players. The league is played over 18 rounds and the top 6 go into quite a complex playoff system to determine the league winner. Each team has a ground which is also run by the government, with good facilities and a small size Stadium, some which can hold around 3000 supporters.

“I travelled out on the Thursday to arrive the day before the match and returned back home late on Sunday evening. For the entire time I had referee liaison Shota, one of 6 professional referees, looking after me. He brought me to and from the airport, showed me around the city and tourist spots, and in general made sure I was really well looked after.

“My fixture was between the two finalists from the previous season, Lelo Saracens Tbilisi V Locomotive Tbilisi, two teams with the biggest of rivalries. The Lelo Saracens team gets its name from the English Saracens side who have teamed up with a number of clubs across Europe to increase their brand and also to help develop rugby. At the moment they bring Lelo’s coaches and support staff to train and work alongside their coaching and backroom staff. It is hoped that in the future this will include giving players the opportunity to train and maybe even trial for them.

“The players in comparison to our All Ireland Leagues were very big and the match was incredibly physical with no quarter given. In particular both Lelo & Locomotive enjoyed scrumming, mauling and generally just smashing each other at every opportunity. With a lot of the emphasis on mauling and scrumming it really showed why this is a real strength of Georgian International rugby. Locomotive scored the first try but Lelo came back with 2 scores of their own to win the match 15-8. At the final whistle my first thoughts were “I survived” and with a lot of positive comments of a good game and good spectacle I was very happy with how it went.

“The generosity, hospitality and kindness shown by the Georgian people to me was fantastic and I couldn’t have hoped for a better experience. The whole experience was only made possible by the IRFU, Georgia Rugby Union and my referee liaison Shota, who I’m extremely grateful to for the kindness shown.

“The U20 world cup is in Georgia this June and I really think Georgia, and the people of Georgia are going to throw themselves into it and get behind it in anyway they can. Given half a chance to go again, whether it be to referee or a short rugby club tour I would jump at the opportunity, however, don’t drive, and make sure to take travel insurance.”

Rob’s background and experience in Georgia is a fantastic example of the benefits of pursuing a role in refereeing, as both the IRFU and Ulster Rugby Branch work diligently to maintain a constant influx of new referees into the sport. Whether you feel the referee is on your side on the day is always up for debate, but none can argue the sport couldn’t exist without them and it’s crucial to continue their development in the sport.