GET TO KNOW: Lions referee Ben O'Keeffe - Ruck

GET TO KNOW: Lions referee Ben O’Keeffe

For our first kiwi ref profile, we were privileged to catch up with Ben O’Keeffe – the international referee who’s now a regular on the domestic New Zealand, Super Rugby and international stage.

Having started officiating in 2008 at the age of 19, Ben is already approaching 150 first class matches, refereeing internationals at major tournaments from the Six Nations to the World Cup.

Ben kindly gave up his Saturday morning to talk to the team at Acme Whistles to reveal all!

  • Name: Ben O’Keeffe 
  • Age: 32, I had to think about that!
  • Height: 1 metre 89 – not sure what that is in feet!

Fitness regime, what do you do to keep fit:

We’ve got a trainer in NZ so we we’re pretty much training Monday to Sunday. We do about three or four gym sessions a week including a lot of strength training but nothing heavy, mainly focussed on injury prevention. Then we do a lot of interval running probably about two field sessions a week with the game in the weekend. After that it’s lots of recovery and eating well.

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Marlborough in New Zealand. It’s where they do a lot of the Sauvignon Blanc, a lot of good white wine here.  

First memory of rugby?

First game I remember was probably when I was in France. I did an exchange thing when I was younger and I remember watching the All Blacks play the Lions while we were over there. 

Number of years refereeing?

About 14 years I think, and I’ve been a professional for about 7.

Number of games refereed?

I know that I’m coming up to 150 first class games and about 26 test matches.

Can you remember your first games as a referee?

Yeah, that was the game where I forgot my watch. It was n under 21s colts game in Dunedin. 

I was studying on my laptop and could see out to the rugby field out of my window just across the road with two teams getting ready, but no ref in sight. It was about 12:50 in the afternoon on Saturday and I decided to log into my email, you couldn’t get your emails on your phone back then, and saw a message that had been sent on the Tuesday before, saying ‘Ben you’re refereeing at 1:00 o’clock this Saturday’. It turned out that the team that I was watching out of my window, and wondering where the referee was, I was meant to be there. So I ran over there pumped for my first game – but in the rush I forgot my watch.

What was your first professional game?

My first professional game was Bay of Plenty V Auckland at Eden Park – which was pretty cool! I remember my first professional penalty came within 7 seconds for a player entering the ruck from the side – yet on review it was probably the straightest angle that anyone’s ever entered a ruck!

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What was your first international as a ref?

So, my first tier two international was Samoa V Georgia. It was played in Samoa, so was a great trip over there, which ended in a 21 all draw – so no winner in that game. Then my first tier one Test Match was at Murrayfield, Scotland V Argentina. Again, it was a tight which, I think, Scotland won by two points. It was just incredible. I love Murrayfield, I’d say it’s on of my favourite stadiums. 

What’s your favourite stadium, is there anywhere that trumps Murrayfield?

There are some amazing major stadiums out there. I love Twickenham, Cardiff in the Six Nations is electric, the Aviva Stadium is another cracker. I also loved Yokohama at the World Cup – great memories there. They are all just awesome stadiums, but I think for me it’s got to be Murrayfield just because it’s always packed with a great atmosphere, sometimes you get the piper on the roof – it’s a very special place, I love it.

Who’s your sporting hero?

For me I like a lot of the golfers. I think they are awesome.  I think referring is a very individualised type of sport, out in the middle, on your own and I think it’s the same for people like Tiger Woods who are out there focussing just on their performance and always looking to improve their game.

What is your whistle of choice?

Of course, it’s an ACME Thunderer. I recently did an upgrade to the black whistle which has a silver fern on there, and a little saying engraved on the side “trust and enjoy” – just as a little reminder during the game to remind me to trust in my decisions, and enjoy the game in the moment.

What’s the biggest moment of your career?

The biggest moment for me was when I refereed Japan V Scotland at the World Cup. Obviously going to the World Cup itself was massive and then with Japan doing so well the whole country got behind them. The atmosphere was incredible and it fell to the winner of this game to get into the Quarter Finals. 

The game almost didn’t go ahead as a typhoon went through Tokyo so on the Saturday night before the game. But match day came and it was a beautiful day and the game was just incredible. I think there was about 70,000 people at the stadium, with a few million watching on TV.

Who inspired you to take out the whistle?

I was lucky that where I started in Dunedin, I got a lot of early opportunities that allowed me to referee to a top level. It was there I had a mentor called Shane McKenzie. He really took me under his wing and helped me get to a point where after a few years he said ‘look I need to pass you on so you can reach your potential.” 

I then met and worked with Colin Hawke who was one of our first professional referees in New Zealand. He really helped me and those early parts of my career to not only enjoy the game, but he also passed on his experience of how to deal with big moments; how to deal with players and how to manage players. He’d refereed the biggest games in the world up to that point. Since then I’ve had loads of help and support from people like Lyndon Bray, Glen Jackson, Bryce Lawrence, Chris Pollock and all of our current managers and coaches.

I’d say a lot of the learning and inspiration now comes from people like Andy Brace and Luke Pearce, our colleagues. We’re constantly giving each other some banter after games, but we’ll also talk about the decisions and why we made those decisions.

If you had to pick one area of the game that you thought the hardest to referee, what would that be?

Look, rugby is hard to referee, that’s the first thing I’d say. In New Zealand we have a really good collaboration with the coaches and players. We tell them our refereeing philosophies and how we referee certain parts of the game, and they tell us how they like it done – and we absolutely take on board what they say.

But teams are also trying to get the advantage so they are always living on the edge and we’re constantly having to catch up with new technique and tactics, which I think is quite exciting.

In terms of the part of the game, I think the hardest to ref its probably the scrum. I was never in the front row and there’s a lot of dynamics and infringements that can happen in a scrum. Also, as a referee we only have the ability to control set up. After the ‘crouch, bind, set’ it’s really up to the players. That’s really been a focus for us as referees to really control the set up and give best chance for the scrum to stay up so both teams can fairly complete. 

You can still do everything right and then a team might collapse and you have to make a decision. Can you play on or do you need to just reset the scrum? Was there an infringement because of a slight angle or roll of the shoulder? There’s a lot that can happen in the front row. 

What is the strangest thing you’ve ever seen on a rugby pitch?

I haven’t seen anything too crazy out there – I’ll keep my eye out! 

Who’s the best player you’ve ever refereed?

That’s a tough one as there’s a lot of pretty awesome players I’ve refereed. We always have to build a relationship with captains and so for me it’s those players that I really remember as great players maybe not necessarily because scoring tries, but because they’re really commanding on the pitch, and they challenge you respectfully. Players that come to mind are Rory Best the Ireland hooker; Guilhem Guirado was great; Alun Wyn Jones for Wales has been fantastic; and then there’s Siya Kolisi whose come onto the scene in the last few years. It’s those guys that as a referee I remember as the greatest players.

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Who is the toughest player you’ve ever refereed?

I think like Ma’a Nonu, yeah he was pretty tough. I’ve noticed over the last few years that players are just a lot bigger, a lot faster and a lot stronger. 

I trained with the Highlanders pre-season one year and you get a real appreciation of how big, fit and hard they hit. That just remind me why I just I love referring – so I don’t have to take those big hits 😉.

If you were to take three things to a desert island, what would they be?

I’d definitely take the unlimited supply of water, Uber Eats would be quite handy, and obviously friends and family as well! Everything to eat, drink and have fun.

Do you have any hidden talents?

Ha, absolutely no party tricks. My brother was the better sportsman; I can’t sing; I learnt the guitar, but I was never good – so much so that at out my first school guitar show they told me I was out of time. 

I am a qualified doctor and still practice medicine. I’ve always found it to be really important to balance everything out between practicing medicine and sport. When I wasn’t refereeing fulltime, I was working Monday to Friday as an ophthalmologist in an eye clinic and then refereed Saturday and Sunday.

When I turned professional as a referee, I had less time for the clinic, but I always try to keep maybe one day every week to go into the eye clinic and help out. It gives my mind a break from the sport, and I really enjoy it. I think that balance is really important and to keep in touch and continue to make a difference.

Who would be your dream dinner party guests?

Right now it’d have to be some of the golfing greats. I think Phil Mickelson, Brooks Koepka and Bryson DeChambeau mainly because there’s a bit of a rift going on between them and it’d be great to see how that panned out. 

What do you want to do after Rugby?

I have a huge passion for ophthalmology. I realised early on that I love fixing things, so I did a lot of surgery in orthopaedics and plastic surgery. Then I came across ophthalmology and the reason I loved it was that you can change their lives. A lot of people take their vision for granted, but after someone has a cataract operation, for the first time they can see grandkids better or they can get their independence back because they can drive again – for me is incredible feeling. 

It’s a privilege to be refereeing. I’m not sure how long it will go on for, but I want it to last as long as possible. I’m 32 now so hopefully I can get a few more years out of it, but when that finishes, I hope I can still achieve some benefit to patients through my clinics. That’s another reason why I keep my hand in the game.

If you could pick two teams to referee, who would that be?

Right now, it would be the Lions V South Africa! 

It was pretty special last year because normally you’re not allowed to referee your own country, but because of COVID we had non-neutral refereeing and I went over to Sydney to oversee New Zealand v Australia. In terms of an ideal game that I never really expect was ever going to be a possibility, that’d be right up there.

Do you have any pregame rituals?

Absolutely not. I really don’t believe in any of that kind of stuff, and in fact I’ll purposely do things differently to go against it as an idea. 

Are you the first of your family referee?

My dad refereed.  He was a very good referee regionally in Marlborough with one or two first class games. 

For me when I have kids in the future it’s definitely something that I would encourage. Obviously to play rugby, or whatever sport they wanted to, but also try refereeing. For me, seeing what I’ve been able to do, the opportunities I’ve had, the people I’ve met, experiences I’ve had – I wouldn’t just recommend it to my family, I recommend it to anyone.

It’s been a huge privilege and I’m very grateful for that day where I was told to give it give it ago. 

For more information on refereeing and the best tools for the job, visit

Referees announced for British & Irish Lions tour to South Africa


South Africa v British and Irish Lions
Cape Town Stadium, Cape Town
Saturday, 24 July, 2021
Referee: Nic Berry (RA)
Assistant Referee 1: Ben O’Keeffe (NZR)
Assistant Referee 2: Mathieu Raynal (FFR)
TMO: Brendon Pickerill (NZR)


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