A hectic national provincial championship campaign for top Taranaki referee Richard Kelly could provide a springboard for his entry into Super Rugby.
Kelly showed just how much he has advanced since taking up refereeing five years ago with some proficient work in the condensed NPC competition.
He controlled nine games in eight weeks and ran the touchline in several matches, including the championship final between Counties Manukau and Otago.
"Every one of those weeks was on the road," he said. "That's one of the challenges they threw at me this year because they [elite referees panel] wanted to test the boundaries of what I would be like if I stepped up into the professional environment."
That step-up could come next year, though Kelly thought he might still have to bide his time to graduate from the New Zealand referees' high performance group to Sanzar's equivalent.
"If that phone call does come I would jump at it with two hands and take that opportunity," he said.
"Having said that, it would be no big loss and it would be no biggie if I didn't get appointed to Super Rugby next year. I'd still be running touch and doing TMO [television match official] and another year in ITM Cup would not be a backwards step in my development."
At 30, he certainly found out what he was "made of" through some pretty high pressure games in the NPC.
"The physical side was okay because I did a lot of work leading into the ITM and relied heavily on my base fitness," he said.
"The mental challenges that came with it, that was the biggest challenge, moving on and being able to move forward from week to week, putting the last game behind you."
Getting into a rhythm helped him with the heavy schedule while he also gained confidence from some positive reviews and his self-assessments.
"That's probably the biggest thing I have grown from the start of this ITM Cup to the end," he said. "I wouldn't have been appointed to nine games if I wasn't seen to be growing."
With a number of senior referees ending their careers recently, Kelly is seen as one of a new generation of whistle blowers who could fill the void.
His strengths are his youth, his game awareness and ability to stay calm under pressure.
Arguably his best game came late in the NPC when he controlled the Otago-Auckland match in Dunedin, won 24-19 by Auckland.
It was an open affair, with both sides looking to play positive rugby.
"The game went nicely and I was able to sit in behind and the game looked after itself," Kelly said.
- Taranaki Daily News
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