Four days ago, a lazy Sunday. I sit on the deck as the sun beats down. Somewhere in the background, a radio station offers up a country music countdown. Yet, my mind is far away as a I process the passing of a colleague.
April 1, 2000. A wet, windy Dublin afternoon. 48,000 spectators jam into venerable Lansdowne Road, as Ireland hosts Wales in the last round of the Six Nations Rugby tournament.
One of the officials, as touch judge I am extremely well placed to view a fierce and wildly fluctuating contest. Early in the second half, a Welsh try extends the lead to 17-6, putting serious doubt into Ireland’s bid for a four match winning streak.
Yet, an Irish penalty goal soon reduces the deficit to eight points. Spurred on, the hosts then dominate play for the next twenty minutes. Just meters from the goal line, the scrum half spots a gap on the short side of a ruck, delivers a flat pass to a flying winger who powers through a double tackle to crash over next to the right corner flag.
It is my call to make. Is the score legal? It all happens so quickly, bodies everywhere, an accurate, split second decision required. No television match official to assist. I gulp, take the plunge, scream “Yes” as I give a “thumbs up” signal. The try is awarded.
I move in goal, station myself behind the goalposts, get ready for the conversion attempt. Try to block out the protestations of the Welsh players close by. They are not happy and let me know it, moaning about an obstruction, questioning the grounding of the ball.
With some trepidation, I await the replay, about to be shown on the stadium’s big screen. I lock eyes with the match referee, an Australian, Andrew Cole. Cool, calm, unflappable as always, he is thoroughly savoring the moment.
The screen confirms the try. “Coley” offers me a quick smile, a nod of the head, and his own thumbs up.
The memory triggers a host of others. As a member of the International Rugby Board (iRB) elite referee panel for two seasons, several of my overseas trips are in Coley’s company. They take us, in addition to Ireland, to Singapore, to Wales, to Italy. To Fiji and Argentina. At every stop, both on and off the field, he is modest and humble. Selfless and supportive, the ultimate team man. Generous with his time. He goes well out of his way to ensure my transition to the demands of international trips and matches is as seamless as possible. All done with a keen sense of humour.
Immediately, I come to appreciate the high regard and respect in which players and coaches from every country hold him. Not surprisingly, he enjoys a superb career, going on to control numerous Super Rugby games, in addition to 31 full test matches. He officiates the British Lions in New Zealand, features at both the 1999 and 2003 World Cups. Moreover, in the 2000 Tri Nations series, he handles an epic New Zealand vs South Africa encounter. In this latter affair, the Springboks captivate a capacity Ellis Park crowd and a television audience of millions when recording a 46-40 thrill a minute triumph.
Coley retires in 2005. With a minimum of fuss, he achieves what most high level performers fail to do, stepping away on his own terms and at the peak of his powers. And while life then takes us on different journeys, while sheer geography keeps us apart, I learn about his smooth shift to referee coaching, mentoring, selecting and development. His expertise and natural enthusiasm, dedication to and backing of officials, at both the community and international level, leave a significant impact. Others know it too, as he captures the prestigious 2021 World Rugby Referee Award for distinguished service to the sport over three decades.
Throughout, well supported by his beautiful wife Anne-Maree, the Cole dentistry practice remains Brisbane’s absolute best. While he remains a loving husband, proud father, and doting grandfather.
If anyone deserves a long and happy retirement, it is Coley. Tragically, it is not to be. The shocking and sad news arrives of his untimely passing, of an icon struck down suddenly and far too young, after a cancer battle. Circumstances, in this instance, so cruel and so unfair.
Fittingly, friends inform me he had planned to attend the most recent Australia-England match. Had secured gold Wallaby jerseys, specially embroidered with the date "July 9, 2022”, for his family. Typical that, even in times of great personal anguish, he thinks of others before himself. Typical of such a classy person, one I was privileged to meet, share some time with, get to know, even just a little.
Slowly, I emerge from my travels back in time. The radio station ends its set with a rendition of the country ballad Three Wooden Crosses. The chorus rings achingly true.
Indeed, “it’s not what you take when you leave this world behind you, it’s what you leave behind you when you go.”
In Coley’s case, no lyrics could be more appropriate. And, as will the countless others who mourn his death, I remember equally a life well lived and a legacy of love, laughter, service, and enduring excellence.