Embattled rugby referee Steve Walsh has spoken out on the incident that has cost him his international career, admitting to “unacceptable” behaviour in an all-night drinking session during a Sanzar conference.
Walsh also revealed he had approached his bosses at the New Zealand Rugby Union seeking a “last chance” as he sought to deal with issues in his personal life, but had been refused that opportunity.
The NZRU today announced Walsh had “retired” from his refereeing job following an inquiry into a personal employment issue, though it appears he has been forced out of a career that saw the 36-year-old officiate in 212 first-class games, including 35 tests and two World Cups.
But Walsh, in a frank interview with Radio Sport, said his situation had been his own fault and he wasn’t looking to hide from his responsibilities on that front.
He said in the incident in question last December he had gone out in Sydney with some friends between the second and third days of a Sanzar referees’ conference.
“I did something that was completely unacceptable, and pretty much drunk through the night and arrived at the conference for a 9 o’clock start and was definitely under the influence of alcohol,” said Walsh.
“I was asked to leave, which I did, and pretty much as a consequence of that and me owning up to my mistakes, the rugby union weren’t prepared to give me another chance. The upshot is I’m finished refereeing in New Zealand.”
Walsh admitted he had been “struggling” with a number of things in his personal life over the last couple of years.
“I don’t want to use that as an excuse, but sometimes I found that I used to drink to relieve those pressures,” he said.
He added: “In the last couple of years I haven’t really enjoyed rugby, [but] in the middle of last year I started to enjoy it again for the first time in two or three years, and that’s just an upshot of personal pressures I’ve felt and I haven’t dealt with very well.”
Walsh told the radio station that he had approached his employers about the possibility of him receiving help to address his problems.
“They weren’t prepared to buy into that type of counselling and help,” he said, adding that the union had been aware of personal issues he had been dealing with prior to the Sydney incident.
“The honest truth is in the middle of last year when I started to get happy about myself and rugby again I realised I had a problem with how I drunk and I went and independently sought some advice. I went to a community alcohol programme. I thought I was on the right path.
“However one bad mistake has led to some huge upheaval in my life really.”
Asked if he felt let down by the NZRU, Walsh refused to directly condemn his employers, but did hint at some frustration.
“I wasn’t looking for another chance,” he said. “I was looking for a last chance. Whether they didn’t believe I could do that, I’m not sure. But in the end they weren’t prepared to go down that route.
“What I had to do was salvage the best possible outcome for me. That was this exit package and that’s the path I’m on.”
But Walsh said he wasn’t looking to blame anyone but himself for his troubles.
“I take personal responsibility for what I did and it was totally unacceptable. I’m continuing to get help and if I want to get back into any walk of life I need to make sure these things don’t happen again.”
However, the man who, at the height of his powers, was rated one of the finest referees in the world was refusing to rule out a possible return to rugby.
“I still have some unfinished business in refereeing and hopefully down the track I will be given an opportunity by somebody,” he said. “I’d just like to get back on the field at some stage I suppose.”
It doesn’t look like he’ll get that chance from the NZRU, unless they have a back-flip. And Walsh admitted that a “tentative” approach to Japan had met with no success.
But at a time when the NZRU appears to have plenty of tolerance for the alcohol-related troubles of its players, it seems a shame that an excellent referee does not appear to have been given the same leeway.
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