GET TO KNOW THE REF: Craig Evans - Ruck


Craig Evans is a Welsh rugby union referee who will be an Assistant Referee (AF) at the Rugby World Cup in France this Autumn. It’s Craig’s first world cup, but he’s also been behind the whistle during the World Rugby Sevens Series in 2016 and during the 2021 Olympics. 

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

Name: Craig Evans 

Age: 31

Height: 6ft

Hometown: Glynneath, South Wales. 

What do you do to keep fit? I enjoy going to the gym. I’ll often go to the gym even just to get over a flight. I went for a run this morning because I didn’t sleep very well then went to the gym in the morning and did weights. The players are getting fitter and stronger, so unless we mirror what they do in terms of their physical output, we’re going to be left behind. 

Fitness for me isn’t always about just getting fitter because you will plateau at some point, but a lot of it comes down to injury prevention. if you do too much and your workload on the weekend is higher than your training then you’re open to injury. 

Obviously, the fitter you are the quicker you recover from training sessions, games and even flights. I look at fitness in another way for referees – the fitter you are, the clearer your mind will be, and a clear mind is what you need for refereeing, you need to have that focus.

How many years have you been refereeing? Full time for 8 years now, but I’ve been qualified since I was 16. Both my parents were on the committee for age grade rugby in my local town – my father was chairman, and my mother was secretary. My team folded because of a lack of numbers, and I thought: “What can I do to stay in the game?” The following season we were constantly getting phone calls in the morning to say the ref hasn’t turned up, we can’t get a ref, so I said: “Put me on a course,” they did that and now I’m sat here talking to you! 

There’s been no referees in the family before, I just took it upon myself to help the junior section on a Sunday morning because my team folded. I got a buzz, I thought I’m enjoying this for a different reason, I wanted to achieve things, so I took the route of the whistle. At the beginning I did think: “Is this for me?” I missed playing on a Saturday, or going to watch my local town, so I only did it for one or two Saturdays. 

But one day I came home from watching a game and my father asked who won, I couldn’t tell him! We’re standing at the railing, I’m talking to the boys about random stuff, and I just thought, I can do something better with this time. That’s when I thought I’ll take this refereeing seriously, see what it could be. 

How many games reffed in total? I’ve done about 46 URC games now, about 20 European, as for Welsh Premiership I’m not sure, Tests maybe 10 or 11, but I’ve done over 150 professional 7s games – whether that’s World Series, the Commonwealth Games, Gold Coast Sevens World Cup, and more recently the Olympic games in Japan in 2021. 

Do you prefer refereeing 15s or 7s? 15s is the career, you’re not going to have a full-time contract refereeing sevens, but when I came onto the 7s I would have been about 22 years old. I didn’t want to go on first of all, I just wanted to do 15s. I got speaking to Alain Rolland and he said: “Look Craig, you don’t become a proper test referee until you’re in your 30s. 

“If you do a full cycle of the 7s, you’ll mature so much as a person, you’ll learn how to deal with yourself, if there’s conflict with the players or coaches, you’ll learn the review process, even as far as travelling to New Zealand and Australia you’ll learn how to cope with jet lag and what that’s like.” 

There’s nowhere to hide when it comes to sevens, you’re in the same hotel as the players, sharing lifts with them, you’re so involved in it all that you do mature as a person. 

There’s still a lot that I want to do but I’m in a better place now because of the sevens than if I hadn’t have had it. I recommend any youngster who gets the chance of doing a 4 year or couple of year cycle on the sevens to go and do it. 

I travelled the world four times in four years on the sevens, when you think of the money alone it would take to go to these places, and that’s without talking about the people I’ve met. But also, being paid to go there, being really looked after when you go there, to be involved in these games with sellout stadiums is a no-brainer. 

But with anything in life you only realise how good something is when the bubble has burst. When you’re riding the wave you’re not really present, you don’t appreciate it for what it is. It’s only when you step away and look back you think yeah… that was pretty cool. 

Can you remember the first game you picked up the whistle for? I didn’t want to do it! It was my local town, I was only 17 or 18 and it was my hometown youth team. 

I thought if I do it and it goes terribly wrong, I’d never be able to walk into the club again – but I did it and it went totally fine. It was strange at the team talk with really good mates saying to them: “I need this, I need that or I’d appreciate this and appreciate that”, but I had to just do it. The feeling when I walked over that white line and blew that whistle and had a job to do, I kind of forgot who they are which is a good thing. 

They probably forgot who I was as well; I’ve got a job to do, the 30 on the pitch have their job to do as well, it’s a bit of craic before and after the game but during those 80 minutes its fine. I’m glad I did it, but I’ve never been so nervous before something. 

What about your first more senior premiership game in terms of taking that step up? With youth rugby it came to the point where I was refereeing second team games at an age where I wasn’t old enough to play in the game, so it was difficult to gain respect and authority. I was talking to front rowers who may have played first class rugby a few years ago and now they’re dropping down to play for their home team and that was quite difficult. 

Youngsters back home are getting pushed through the levels so much quicker than when I was coming through, I may have jumped one division a year, or two if people are finishing and you are good enough. 

My first Premiership game was a local derby, Aberavon against Swansea in the Welsh prem. I did every step on the ladder. First international was Rugby Europe, Malta against Israel – super random! Malta won but Israel stayed on the other side of the island, when the players went anywhere there were body guards at the front, middle and back. I went to do a team talk and there were bodyguards by the side of me – it was weird! 

First tier one game was England v Canada in 2021, just after the Olympics. My first child was born June 8th then the Olympics came then my first tier one. I thought was a misprint – I was down for 2 games on same weekend, one was touch, one was England v Canada but it was me down for that! 

I’ve done three now, England v Canada at Twickenham, England v Tonga which was surreal, then England v Uruguay after. 

What’s your favourite stadium? Twickenham was special just because of the sheer volume of 82,000 people there, but as for noise and atmosphere it must be the Cape Town stadium. I did South Africa v England in the cup final there on the 7s in 2016, 55 thousand there roofed in the middle of summer, they were all South African, the flags are everywhere, the flames are going off, they played the first few seconds of the National Anthem then turned it off to just let the crowd sing. It was absolutely phenomenal. 

There are also some cool stadiums in France which are really loud and bouncing when they’re busy, but that Cape Town one stuck with me. It was the biggest and noisiest crowd with home fans that I’d done up until that point. It’ll be hard to top that. 

Sporting hero? Jonah Lomu, I even went as far as having the same haircut as him! I idolised him. 

Whistle of choice: ACME Matt Black Thunderer, which I was gifted shortly after my son Hugo was born with his name engraved. Wherever I am in the world he’s not too far from me. 

Biggest moment in your career? Up until a couple of weeks ago the Olympics or first tier one game where I was presented with a cap with the Welsh rugby union and my name on the board in the stadium.

But a phone call about going to the World Cup, letting that sink in, the magnitude of that and what’s to come is the highlight. It seems weird because I’ve watched so many as a kid. Nigel Owens is a mentor and close friend and what he’s passing back onto me is phenomenal. You asked about my idol – well my current professional idol is Nigel – the guidance he’s given me is incredible.  

Which area of the game is hardest to ref? The hardest part to referee at the moment is the lineout-maul because there’s so much going on and there’s so many check boxes automatically going on in your mind when you’re setting up the ball coming in to make sure there’s a fair competition. The scrum isn’t easy either, trying to communicate what you want. 

What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever seen on a rugby pitch? When I was 18 or 19 I went to a game in west Wales and they didn’t have paint to mark the pitch so they used sawdust for every single line on the rugby pitch. Could have gone terribly if it was a windy day! 

Best player you’ve reffed? Cheslin Kolbe – although it’s hard to name an individual. Other names that stand out are Siya Kolisi an Eben Etzebeth. Back home there’s Alun Wyn Jones, Gregory Alldritt, Sergio Parisse, too many to mention. 

Who’s the toughest player, putting in the biggest hits on the pitch? Eben Etzebeth puts himself about, Evan Roos, Peter O’Mahony, Manu Tuilagi, you’re next to some of these collisions and you think: “If you hit me like that, I’d be in a coffin,” the force is phenomenal. A lot of the Fijians combine the skill and pure strength which makes them big hitters. 

What three things would you take to a desert island? Are my wife and kids going to hear this? Jokes aside – a good music system, food (loads of it) and alcohol. 

Have you got a hidden talent? I’ve played a lot of badminton and table tennis because our headmaster was an umpire in the Olympics. It’s a world away from rugby so some people might not expect that. 

Which three people would you invite to a dinner party? Jonah Lomo, he’s got to come, I’ll take my mate Lewis because he’s an absolute lunatic, and the third one would be Arnold Schwarzenegger. 

Is there anything you want to achieve outside rugby? I just want to give back at the moment. I started doing fitness things as a passion of mine. I’m a personal trainer so whether I’ll go to that I’m not sure. 

I’ve been in this professional role 8 or 9 years so hopefully a few more achievements to come. I want to be coming out of the game in however many years’ time doing everything you could have possibly done on the 7s and 15s. 

But at that point it would be a great shame not to give anything back. Maybe I’d look into coaching or a managerial role, even if it’s outside of Wales. I might open up my own gym. I don’t do much on the side at the moment because rugby takes up so much of my time. Rugby has given me so much I want to stay in the game and give back to the next generation and the ones who are just behind me. 

Create your perfect game, what two teams: New Zealand and Ireland probably, but from a fan point of view New Zealand and Fiji. They’re teams who know where to stand, where to go. 

You ref Fiji in 7s, you haven’t got a clue where to stand – these people can step you in a phone box. The Kiwis just attack attack attack, the scrum and maul aren’t used as a weapon to gain penalties, they’re used as a platform to unleash the backs and play some open rugby. 

I think I talk for everyone when I say everyone wants to be involved in an open and flowing game, those are the games that everyone enjoys and remembers. A game that’s open and flowing with flare and some absolute freak athletes with a high skill set, that’s what everyone wants. 

How do you prepare for a game? I keep the lead up weeks similar, but it depends what day of the week the game is on. On match days, (I love my food), I can eat 2 hours before kick-off, I am conscious of water intake, you don’t want to come off with an injury or cramp, how embarrassing – especially on TV! 

I chat with the team and I’ll do lots of activation and stretching. I do have headphones in for that, I’ve always done it that way and I don’t want the rest of the team to listen to my music if it’s not enjoyable for them, that’s the only time I’m not present with the team. 

Once that’s done, they’re back in the bag and I’m present. I do like a plan and structure, but it needs to be flexible because if it doesn’t fall into plan, I don’t want that to affect my focus going into the match. So, I keep match days loose compared to the rest of the week when I’m tighter on timings.