GET TO KNOW THE REF: Ben Whitehouse - Ruck

GET TO KNOW THE REF: Ben Whitehouse

Ben Whitehouse is a Welsh rugby union referee who has been selected as a TMO for this year’s Rugby World Cup. This is his second consecutive World Cup as a TMO having been selected for the same role in last year’s Women’s World Cup in New Zealand. 

The experts at ACME Whistles were able to grab an exclusive interview with Ben to get to know the referee behind the whistle.

Name: Ben Whitehouse

Age: 32

Height: I say I’m 6ft. I’m 182.5cm – a touch under 6ft because we’re all friends here 😉.

What do you do to keep fit? Outside the refereeing training fitness stuff we do, I like to do CrossFit. I go to CrossFit 179 in Swansea and then we do the Tuesday and Thursday referee sessions and have our own S&C coach there as well. 

CrossFit is one of those where you don’t have to train for hours every day. You can do half an hour, 40minutes or maximum an hour and you’re done. It’s a good workout and it’s good to train with people as well because our job can sometimes be a bit lonely as you’re not with a team. 

Where do you live? 

I was originally born and raised in the Gower in Swansea. I’ve moved a bit inland because I can’t afford the houses down there 😉.

How many years have you refereed? 

This will be my thirteenth year in total. I did some kids’ stuff, but probably started taking it seriously when I did seniors and was about 19/20 years old. 

How did you get into refereeing? 

My dad was a test match referee so he ushered me into it a little. He never pushed me, but once I realised I wasn’t going to play for Wales I thought about how I could get on the field in a different capacity. 

I gave it a go as a teenager, enjoyed reffing the kids on a Sunday and at 19 I joined the police force. I was living up in Newport so it was a bit harder to get back to my home club, Penclawdd RFC and I started reffing up there on a Saturday. It was quite organic from there really. 

Before you know it, I was turning pro in 2015 and it happened really quickly in the grand scheme of things.

How many games have you refereed? 

I do actually because someone asked me the other day so I pulled it together. I’ve done 91 URC/pro-14/pro-12 games, 25 (ish) European cup games, 10 test matches as a referee and 34 test matches as a TMO. 

Can you remember the first ever game you picked up the whistle for?

When I was refereeing kids, it will have been Penclawdd RFC U-9s and I was running round with not a clue what was going on. Then the first men’s senior game that I ever refereed was RTB Ebbw Vale – a smaller team within Ebbw Vale. 

Then the first professional game of rugby that I ever refereed in a league was Zebre v Connacht. 

Can you remember your first International game?

That’s a good question. I think it was Romania v Uruguay. 

What’s your favourite stadium?

I think in terms of reffing and Assistant Reffing it was when I was Assistant Referee for Ireland v the All Blacks in Soldier Field in Chicago. When I got that fixture back in 2016 I thought ‘this could be special’, but when I went out there it was unbelievable. You had your neutral fans there supporting the All Blacks then so many Irish people of those with Irish heritage from the States and Chicago in particular and there was green everywhere. It was just like a game in Dublin. They went on and won that day in a pretty decent game of rugby so that was fantastic to be part of.

As a referee I’d probably refer back to some club games really. The Clermont stadium is phenomenal. Toulon’s Stade Mayol, La Rochelle Stade Marcel Deflandre – there are not many French stadiums that are quiet during games! 

One of my favourite games was probably Connacht v Munster in Thomand Park. Connacht won the league that year. They came with a load of momentum into that game and Munster hadn’t lost against them for I don’t know how many years in Thomand Park and it was a special atmosphere. 

Who is your sporting hero?

I suppose different sports and different eras play a part in this. Growing up I was a Manchester United fan so Sir Alex Ferguson took over my childhood with Man U winning everything. I love other sports too so in golf there’s Tiger Woods; in cricket you’ve got Ben Stokes. I’m still a child when it comes to sports and am still sports mad. I watch Ben Stokes batting and wish that I had 1% of his ability. 

What’s your whistle of choice?

ACME since day one. I had a black thunderer engraved with my son’s initials when he was born, and I was using that for years. But recently I’ve gone back to the silver version. 

What’s been the biggest moment in your career so far?

Making my professional debut was massive at the age of 24. And then you talk about the milestones in your career so when I hit 50 games it was significant because I never thought I’d hit 50 and now it’s about getting 100 games in my league. There are a few people who have achieved that in my league and so it will be amazing for me to also hit that milestone. 

I love refereeing in the URC and the dynamics of the tournament. It’s copped a bit of stick over the years, but you’d struggle to find a competition at the moment that is cross hemisphere, multinational that has different brands and styles of rugby like URC does.

Another big moment is that I got ill in 2017 and diagnosed with Crohn’s disease and ended up having life saving surgery. Coming back after that surgery, I refereed Ulster v The Barbarians and that was really emotional for me because I was told in the hospital, after my surgery, that I might have to re-think my refereeing career so that first game back was a big deal for me. 

Who inspired you to take up the whistle?

My dad inspired me. Seeing him travel around the world, watching him on telly, watching him do all these big games whether it be internationals or club games, my dad inspired me 100%. 

I’ve talked about when I get to my 100th game and I reckon my dad will come and watch that, as long as it’s not in South Africa or somewhere where he needs to Pay for a long-haul flight! 😉

Did your dad ever tell you that you’d make it and offer you tips on what you needed to do?

With him being a referee, I think he could spot that I had that potential in me and the certain characteristics that, as a referee, you need at a professional level.

So, when I was crossing over between carrying on playing local rugby and refereeing he was always saying that I needed to think about what I wanted to do because I had an opportunity to keep going up the ranks in refereeing if that’s what I wanted to do. He never pushed me to be a referee, but he always let me know that I had a choice and that I had what it takes. At the time I had a good career in the police force, but being a professional referee was also on the cards. 

My old Sgt Chris Davies (a great boss and a good friend) said to me “don’t sit in an armchair at 70 wondering what would have happened” if I hadn’t taken a risk and become a pro referee. Craig Evans and I both turned pro back in 2015 and I always thought that if I failed, I was young enough to recover and go back to the police force. 

My dad has always been a sounding board for me and reminds me not to make any rash decisions when it comes to my career. 

It can be hard sometimes when people say I’m only here because of my dad or say negative things about his style of refereeing, but those that are important know the facts and that’s all that really matters.

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

I previously would have said something like scrum and breakdown not so long back, but I think as time goes on, I’d probably say lineout maul is so difficult to referee. 

We bring a directive in or start reffing a law more firmly and coaches will try to find a way around that, so we have to adapt to that. So, I’d probably say lineout maul is really tough at the moment. 

I think it’s a pretty good battle. We haven’t got the defence or the attack massively on top with it so we don’t have a problem with equity of the ball, but I just think it’s the difficulty of balancing refereeing with attack and defence with equity is difficult. 

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

It’s something that happened slightly after a game and it was a local cup game just after I’d joined the police so I was probably months into my police journey. The game got called off about ten minutes from the end because a player had a nasty injury and one team was a clear winner so we decided to call it and get the player treated. 

I went into the changing room and there was a young man in there who was just about to walk out. I was thinking to myself ‘you’re not meant to be in here’ so I asked him what he was doing and he started slurring. I looked down at his pockets and they were bulging so I asked him what was in his pockets and he claimed there was nothing and tried to barge past me. I tried to move him towards another room to find out what was going on and a couple of phones fell out of his pockets. 

He tried to run away so I grabbed him and as we were grappling on the floor, loads more phones, wallets and all sorts started pouring out of his pockets. I got assistance from a police officer who was outside and we locked him up for burglary in the changing room. It turns out he had £7k’s worth of gear on him. That was my first ever arrest as a policeman and probably the weirdest thing that’s ever happened at a game! 

Who is the best player you’ve ever refereed?

For pure skill set it would be someone like Justin Tipuric who can do anything. He’s a nuisance at the breakdown, amazing with the ball in hand and a fantastic tackler. I always know it’s going to be a tough game with him in the breakdown because he’s so good. 

Then you’ve got leaders like Johnny Sexton who sometimes is a challenging player to referee, but in terms of rugby brain and ability he’s just superb. 

There are so many players with different attributes that it’s hard to say who is the best player to referee. 

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

Will Skelton! He’s absolutely massive. I reffed him at Saracens and he’s massive. He’s there ragging blokes round like they’re school boys sometimes. I always just think ‘thank god I’ve got an ACME whistle in my hand!’ 😉  

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

I’d probably take a knife because you can do anything with a knife and I’ve got a little Swiss utility knife with the screwdriver and saw on it. I’d probably take some kind of ball with me and then my last thing would be a bottle of water. 

What’s your party trick?

I tend to do the worm when I’m drunk. That’s a wedding special though 😉 

Who would be your dream dinner party guests?

Sir Alex Ferguson. I was lucky enough to meet him a year or two ago and I think I just spent the entire time looking at him with my mouth open, star struck and hanging on every word he said. 

I’d also like to have someone interesting and a bit of a pioneer there too so maybe Tim Peake because I don’t know too much about him. 

The third person would have to be a bit wild to rev things up a bit. So, someone like Maradona who has crazy stories. 

So, we’ve got someone sensible in Tim Peake, Alex  Ferguson with the legendary football knowledge and status and then you’ve got Maradona to balance things a little bit. 

What would you like to achieve outside of rugby?

I haven’t put too much thought into what I want to do outside of rugby at the moment. We just did a renovation on an old house so that’s probably something else I’d like to have a go at once I replenish my bank account after this one. I like that I can do this outside of rugby and in my own timescale. With kids at home, it’s always good to have that exit plan which I hope isn’t in the near future, but it’s nice to have an ace up your sleeve.  

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

Probably New Zealand v South Africa though I don’t know if I’ll get that opportunity. I remember watching them back in 2013 in what is now coined ‘the greatest game ever’ and thinking that it was really full on. 

Before going into professional refereeing I would probably have said Osprey v Scarlets or Munster v Leinster as club games because those are the games I saw my old man referee and watched on TV thinking that I wanted a piece of the action. 

Thankfully, I’ve ticked them off a few times and they were fun. Not always enjoyable, but fun afterwards. 

Do you have any pre-game rituals?

I always like to get my kit out and make sure I’ve got everything. I pop my boots under the bench then lay a towel down, along with my shorts, socks, undershirt and jersey. If it’s laid out then I know I’ve got everything and there’s no last minute panic there. I also check my whistle and my cards are there.

Then, the thing I always do and have done for years and years is use the same coin to toss in. I’ve used the same coin for about six years and for every game I’ve refereed. 

Before I go out in the tunnel I always say ‘whistle, wallet, watch’ because I have forgotten my cards once before. I tap them as I say them just so I know I’ve got them. I do that before every game because I worry about forgetting my cards. 

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