Perenara happy he traded ball for whistle

WHISTLE MAN: Henry Perenara during an NRL game.
WHISTLE MAN: Henry Perenara during an NRL game.

The league-loving kids out Penrith way provided Henry Perenara with an immediate insight into the challenges he volunteered to tackle when occupying the most visible, vilified and vulnerable position on a sports field.

It was a crisp morning in the western Sydney league heartland and Perenara was designated an under-14s match - the first time he would walk on to a ground without the prospect of getting hurt.

An hour or so later, he was defending himself after a supposedly innocuous hit-out for schoolboys deteriorated into a spiteful Saturday morning exercise.

"I had to call off the game," said Perenara as he reflected on his first experience with the boot figuratively on the other foot.

"There were two sendoffs and a blue after the game."

That rough play and foul language might have been a deterrent for Perenara, who defied his father's advice to play on at Cronulla past the 2007 NRL season and strive to represent Samoa at the World Cup - eight years after he played two internationals for New Zealand Maori at the previous edition.

Instead the Auckland-born backrower, who also played a test for the Kiwis against France in 2001, persevered with the NRL's inaugural three-year refereeing cadetship scheme and is now the only New Zealander among the 20-strong first-grade squad.

Perenara had a year left on his contract at the Sharks but was already contemplating a move to coaching or a development role when he was approached to facilitate the NRL's goal of converting former players to referees.

"I'd just had my third shoulder reconstruction," explained Perenara, who originally wanted to follow his father's footsteps into coaching.

"I ended up missing out on that job because they [the NRL] couldn't fathom why a first-grade footballer wanted to give up playing for a development job."

Bernie Perenara, who coached Marist-Richmond and Waitakere, was also perplexed - he thought the World Cup and a stint up north in Super League should be factored in before retirement.

"I had a good year with Cronulla [reserve grade] and I could have gone around but I had my reasons," Perenara said.

"My son [Tremayne] was 2 years old at the time and I couldn't pick him up for three or four days after a game. My shoulders were that sore.

"I was waking up at night, I don't think I'd sleep more than three or four hours at a time because I'd roll on one way and it would go numb."

He certainly had little time to sleep on his decision to retire once the NRL hierarchy laid out the cadetship scheme to a sceptical Perenara who was recruited with fellow retirees Luke Philips and Paul Mellor.

Perenara initially had three days to mull it over, then the time frame was cut to less than 24 hours as the NRL wanted to issue the press release.

"It was a really tough but, to be honest, it's probably the best decision I've ever made."

Perenara started his pre-season in November 2007 - as a player would - and in his first year he worked up from those naughty under-14s to the under-20s.

He also ran the line in the NSW Cup - all up he was involved in 140 fixtures, up to 13 games a week.

That workload was necessary because Perenara was playing catchup: some established referees had already been active for a decade.

Inevitably Perenara already knew the likes of Ben Cummins, Gerard Sutton, Alan Shortall and Shayne Hayne - and initially their working relationship could be fractious.

"Those guys were refereeing in reserve grade when I was playing reserve grade.

"I used to give it to them. Now we have a joke and a laugh about it; when I first started, they didn't think I'd go so well."

Perenara thought being a former player was useful in terms of realising the pressure individuals were under but he still had to be a dispassionate observer.

"I can understand where players are coming from but it's my job to adjudicate the rules rather than understand where their feelings are," he said.

However, there is an exception to that rule: Perenara empathised with English players outraged when he mistakingly ruled out a try to Tom Briscoe shortly after halftime in their Four Nations clash with the Kangaroos at Wembley in 2011.

Perenara, the solitary on-field referee, penalised Briscoe for a double movement when replays indicated the try was legitimate. England could have led 14-12 if the try was converted; Australia eventually won 36-20.

"I made a big, big error," said Perenara, who did not ask the video referee to review the grounding.

"I went on my gut call and my gut call was wrong."

While the majority of the crowd were voicing their displeasure indistinctly, the English players were easier to understand.

"The players were into me and rightfully so," Perenara, who had to endure another 36 uncomfortable minutes on centre-stage, recalls.

It is of no consolation to the English - who also lost the tournament final to the Kangaroos - but Perenara uses that episode as a reference point when a game he controls tenses up.

"I've learnt so much from that. When games get really, really tight now I say to myself ‘Wembley' under my breath.

"That's my way of settling. That game was as hard as it gets. I don't think it [the non-try] changed the game but you want to be perfect. You want to get through the game without being recognised. To me, I influenced that game."

Perenara played his last first-grade game against the Melbourne Storm in August 2007 but maintains a competitive streak.

"I took up this refereeing thing to be the best. I want to do Origins, Grand Finals and test matches.

"I didn't take it up to do a couple of first-grade games."

The referees group needs to stick solid when confronting a barrage of abuse each weekend but, at the review process, conditioning programmes and a midweek game of badminton, there is a determination to be regarded No 1.

"It's no different to a footy club," Perenara said.

"You've got eight backrowers going for three positions. We're all trying to achieve the same goal, referee the best we can each and every week. There's competition for spots. We've got 20 fulltime referees and there's only 16 used every week." Perenara made his first-grade debut alongside Matt Cecchin when the Sydney Roosters beat Canberra at the SFS on July 4, 2011, and controlled two more games that season.

In 2012, he was allocated nine matches and so far this season he has only missed one weekend in the firing line - the abbreviated round 12 where eight teams had byes.

Perenara typically adjudicates one game per round and then has video-referee duties through a system that has a former player assist a referee.

He and Ashley Klein were in the box at Brookvale Oval on June 14 for the Bulldogs' golden-point win over Manly and, although Frank Pritchard's wife, Raima, and fullback Ben Barba bore the brunt of abuse, Perenara was also criticised.

Klein and Perenara green-lighted a contentious try to standoff Josh Reynolds, a critical six-pointer before the Bulldogs won 32-30.

Manly coach Geoff Toovey claimed Reynolds forced the ball short of line; Manly general manager David Perry voiced his dismay when entering the media box.

Here, Perenara explains the rationale behind the decision after on-field referee Shayne Hayne believed a try had been scored before requesting the video referees to review.

In this instance, Klein and Perenara had to be 100 per cent Reynolds had not scored.

"As video referees we have to be 100 per cent sure that it's not a try.

"There was one angle that said he was short, there was another angle where it looked like it touched the line. That's our review process. If we can't tell we go back to the live decision and the live decision [by Hayne] was a try."

Unlike last year when the benefit of the doubt went to the attacking team, if there is a borderline case, the video referees back the official who made the call in the middle.

Perenara knows you can't keep everyone - or anyone - happy.

Grumpy coaches, irate players, and a critical media are an occupational hazard, likewise abusive, myopic fans.

"You develop a thick skin over time. When I first started I took a little bit of it personally.

"At certain times, they're very correct and have very valid points.

"We've got to realise when we're wrong we hopefully learn from that mistake and never make the wrong decision again."

Perenara does not decipher specific abuse when he is on the field because he is focused on his job and the words are distorted by the din. But heading up the tunnel after the final siren is a different matter.

"Some of it can get quite personal. I don't condone that, especially with young kids around.

"You try to be the bigger person and walk away," he said of a no-win situation.

His wife Tina can get upset in the stands when Perenara is abused but he is conciliatory: "You've just got to forget about it. Rugby league is a tribal sport, you couldn't do anything without the fans."

Perenara is recognised as a former player and referee, though walking the streets or socialising is not yet a problem.

"I don't have any qualms about that. If I go out and have a beer with friends, I'll go and stand in the corner.

"I was like that as a player. I never chased the spotlight."

Tremayne, aged 7, is the eldest of his four children, so the kids are not yet hassled as a consequence of dad's job.

"I hope to God it doesn't fall back on them, that's the last thing that I want is my kids to cop abuse because of me."

Perenara doesn't shy away from social media - he has Facebook and Twitter accounts, though doesn't access the latter very often.

"A few fans go crazy but you just block them and ignore them. We are human and there's only so much you can cop. I'm not a punching bag."

Sunday News