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Rock and a Hard Place

04.45. The bright red digits on the bedside clock stare back at me. Normally a sound sleeper, I toss and turn. Memories, emotions, reflections keep me awake. Though a long time has since passed by, this can mean only one thing. That November 18 approaches on the calendar.

I drift back in time to 2000. 21 years ago, in Edinburgh. All going well, this trip will crown a memorable ten months. A member of the International Rugby Board’s (iRB) elite referee panel, I officiate in Rome, Dublin, Toronto, Tucuman and Buenos Aires. In the USA and the South Sea Islands. If still a stretch to say my star is in the ascendancy, a series of very positive assessments suggest I am at least trending in the right direction.

One final step remains, a match between host Scotland and visiting Samoa. Apparently, in the corridors of power, a whisper hints at a coveted Six Nations appointment in the spring of 2001 if I can produce a superior performance. For an official from a "tier 2" country, this would be a significant achievement.

Little do I know that a fiendishly difficult decision, one I could never forsee having to make, lurks in the shadows.

In the best shape of my life, I am perplexed to wake up the day before the match with a sore left knee. No idea as to the cause. A stretch and an easy pool workout provide no relief, nor does a walk at a nearby park. At low impact, the pain is tolerable, but an inconvenience I can certainly do without.

I visit a physiotherapist in the afternoon. After some treatment and a tape job, he puts me through a rigorous fitness test. I pass it, though having to somewhat grit my teeth in the process. There is no structural damage, he tells me. With the adrenaline flowing, you will manage tomorrow.

The rest of the afternoon crawls by. I dredge up every possible positive thought I can, will the stiffness in my knee to subside, to vanish completely. Battle the demons in my mind. Why this, and especially why now, I ask myself?

A fitful night is in store.

Come morning, I open the curtains in my hotel room. I should be buzzing with excitement, but instead the sullen skies match my mood. My knee is still rigid and sore, resistant to various combinations of heat, ice, anti-inflammatories and massage.

And so, as I wrestle with possible options, I have to determine if I can actually referee.

On the one hand, it could be a straightforward decision. Given my unexpected “injury”, I am not fully fit. I should contact the iRB, explain the situation and pull out of the match.

Unfortunately, in my mind at least, things are anything but clear cut. I convince myself that to withdraw just before kickoff will have far reaching, negative repercussions. Already the wrong side of 40, with other new officials on the panel much younger, with the selectors soon to be casting an eye towards the 2003 World Cup, I will be deemed easily replaceable. Add in the fact I not only hail from Canada but anticipate a shift in direction by the iRB; namely, a streamlining of the panel of referees to include just those from major unions.

The alternative is to handle the game as planned. To grab what might be my last real chance. To battle through any discomfort in my knee. I take the physiotherapist at his word, that I can complete the assignment.

If underwhelming in the process, I will almost certainly lose my place on the panel.

Yet, if I perform soundly enough, if the breaks run my way, if my knee behaves and settles down, perhaps I can contemplate future high-level opportunities.

Three possible outcomes to consider. Two of which, unfortunately, are bad.

Hours later I arrive at Murrayfield, the home of Scottish Rugby. Despite dull, dreich conditions, a crowd of nearly 46,000 is on hand. Fireworks highlight the pre-match entertainment, while massed pipe bands offer stirring renditions of Highland Cathedral and Flower of Scotland.

Down in the bowels of the stadium, I ready for action. Meet the teams, conduct the coin toss, warm up. Yet, with my knee stiffening, already I am having second thoughts. An uneasy feeling gnaws away at me. I give myself a stern rebuke. Having weighed up the options, having decided to officiate, it is time to get on with it.

Alas, midway through the game, I know I am in some trouble. Not due to the standard of play, nor the pressure of the occasion. Not due to my interaction with the two sides, nor to my calls, the vast majority of which are correct. Indeed, these are the least of my problems. Rather, forced to chop my stride, I just don’t look the part. Struggle to move smoothly, to change gears. Take short cuts with my running lines.

Eventually, after eighty awkward, at times agonizing minutes, I blow for full time. Scotland, far and away the superior side and totally dominant in the second half, wins easily. 31-8.

Post-match obligations complete, I return to the hotel. Pack and prepare for the long flight home. The assessor promises to send my report via the iRB office. He has little else to say, offers only a clipped goodbye as he rushes off. And so I suspect what is coming.

I finally get back to Victoria. The throbbing in my knee persists, now spreading also to my calf and foot. I see a doctor and receive a diagnosis. Imaging confirms a series of blood clots, indicates significant deep vein thrombosis.

Months go by, as I adjust slowly to newly required levels of blood thinning medication. The break provides time to analyze, again and again, my Edinburgh decisions.

In the end, while bitterly disappointed, and while the inevitable axe from the international referee panel really stings, I harbour no regrets. Trapped between a rock and a hard place, I gamble and go all in.

My dream, of a possible Six Nations appointment, maybe even a subsequent Lions tour or World Cup appearance, proves to be a powerful incentive.

No matter that the celebrated poet Rudyard Kipling warns of “not making dreams your master or thoughts your aim”.


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