Halfway Checkpoint

IT’S HARD TO BELIEVE that it has been 5 weeks since I arrived in South Africa and started my adventures at the Maties Referee Academy in Stellenbosch. I’m writing this as I shift my sitting position in the beach dunes to face the sun, so that if I get a tan then hopefully it’ll be balanced… these are the most of my worries at the moment while I’m on a beach holiday in paradise. We’re spending the extended weekend in Hartenbos, a beach town on the southeastern cape, and it’s a beautiful, perfectly warm but not too hot, lightly breezy day. I did my usual beach prancing upon arrival and then made a home for myself in the dunes.

“…A HOLIDAY, a very long holiday, and I don’t expect I shall return.” – Bilbo, Fellowship of the Ring. As I previously wrote and shared on Facebook, I recently noticed while looking at records of the games I’ve refereed so far in SA that we haven’t had a 3 day break from reffing since my second week here, and only one 2 day break in those last 3 weeks. Wow! There is so much that can be said about this simple observation. But first to finish my LOTR reference, I do expect I shall return from our 5 (FIVE!) days off during the Easter weekend holiday. [tl:dr; I frequently think of Bilbo’s exclamation, “I want to see mountains again, Gandalf, mountains!” while I’m here in SA being constantly surrounded by beautiful, stoic, rising mountains, and I imagine I might feel like Bilbo upon my return to the states.]

Mountains, Gandalf!
The view from the Danie Craven stadium that we call home.

MY EXPERIENCE WITH SOUTH AFRICA’S RUGBY CULTURE has been incredible. The rugby culture here is amazing!!! – It’s amazingly pervasive, proud, and plenty. From baby to great grand parent, student to teacher, rich to poor, South Africa’s sea to South Africa’s moon, coast to coast, and everywhere in between, seemingly everyone knows about and is involved with rugby in some way. Even if someone is a disgruntled fan of hockey rather than rugby (hockey clubs in SA schools often struggle to gain footing in the rugby crazy country, similar to rugby’s plight in America), s/he still knows about rugby, and I’ll never have to answer the question, “Oh, rugby. Is that the sport with sticks?” I find it amusing though that I’m often asked, “Are you Japanese?” instead of the typical question I hear in America, “Are you Chinese?” I assume it’s because South Africans know about Japan’s great rugby traditions, and I find it interesting that that’s one of people’s first thoughts when they see me. Maybe one day American rugby will have its own enormous international rugby footprint and I will be asked if I’m from the US without having to open my mouth first for people to hear that I “sound like they do in the movies”, and maybe then I won’t have to answer the question, “do they have rugby in the US?” to tones of disbelief when I tell them just how much there is, especially women’s rugby.

TO ILLUSTRATE HOW SYNONYMOUS RUGBY IS WITH SOUTH AFRICA, I wrote a blog post called “Reason #87 Why Maties is the place to be for rugby referees”. In it I mentioned a few astonishing facts:

  • There are nearly 200 matches played on a single Saturday in Western Province during their fall season.
  • Paul Roos high, a boys school in Stellenbosch, can and does field NINE U19 (ages 16-18) sides.
  • Western Province requires that all clubs have at least 4 sides in order to participate in Super League A, B, and C.
  • SA Referees estimates that it needs about 3,500 referees while there are only about 2000 active referees.
  • Even 3rd side and Under-20 players sometimes get match fees from their clubs.
  • It is not uncommon for youths to be contracted.
  • Nearly everything I’ve seen that’s related to rugby has a sponsor, from primary schools to hostel teams to our academy van.

While I’m aware that I’m probably living in the rugby capital of South Africa and recognize that perhaps my perspective of South African rugby is skewed, I don’t think my portrayal of how interlocked, connected, and ingrained rugby is in South African culture is too far off.

STELLENBOSCH IS AN OASIS FOR RUGBY. I am very fortunate, maybe more than I even realize, to be at the Maties Referee Academy. I believe it is one of the best, if not the best, programs and environments to train, study, and practice in to become an elite referee. Thank you, thank you, thank you to everyone who has made this possible, especially to those who have made it possible for me to get here and be here without having to worry about financing the trip and returning to my job in May.

THE ACADEMY offers so much to support top quality referee training –

  • Access to top facilities such as a vision lab where we train our visual range and recognition, hand-eye-body coordination, reaction time, and decision making, often in rugby- and referee-specific capacities.
    • A gym with anything and everything I could ever ask for or dream of having in a gym, except a kg to lb converter other than my brain. The gym has plenty of foam rollers, never too few squat racks, Olympic size indoor and outdoor pools, its own crossfit box, anything xfit, plenty of machines, an indoor track, studios, and an excellent crew of professionals and staff.
    • Other natural, beautiful, and less technologically heavy facilities such as a mountain path right behind the stadium, where we run on the well kept path in the early mornings multiple times a week.
    • A stadium, where we train on the steps, watch rugby (Varsity Cup and university practices), and have class in the meeting room next to Hendrik and Marius’ office. For me personally, the stadium is also where I gather motivation and energy from every morning when I skip up the steps and the view opens up to the beautiful pitch below with a backdrop from a Bob Ross painting. I’ll take a deep breath of fresh air, close my eyes, strike a power pose, and simply LIVE in it, smiling.
  • Excellent people including ref coaches Hendrik and Marius, physical trainers like Andre and Melissa, vision coach Grant, mental coach Tom, so many young referee peers, team coaches, Miyagi in particular who invites us to Maties practices, the ladies who feed us every day at the school, and many more.
  • A perfect location with a grossly large number of rugby games, practices, trials, and tournaments to referee.
  • Other academy students to experience the academy lifestyle with, which I believe is critical to the success of the academy. Officiating can be an isolating and lonely experience, so having peers is a refreshing necessity in my opinion.
  • The busy and bustling town of Stellenbosch, full of its share of university students, people who really love their sports, shops, restaurants, pubs, bars, clubs, pool tables, ping pong tables, pianos, malls, and many more things that help keep our lives in balance. Of course it’s also full of its fair share of children and relatives of Springboks (I feel like Hendrik knows a child of a Springbok at all the games we go to in Stellenbosch), Springboks themselves (we saw Branco Du Preez and Cecil Afrika at pizza night and Eben Etzebeth at SA U20 trials), future Springboks, iRB refs (met Jonathan Kaplan at UCT), and other refs.
Kids reffing kids
Referees for a national U15 tournament
I see you.
The vision lab

A TYPICAL DAY FOR A STUDENT AT THE ACADEMY, if there is such thing as a typical day, may look something like this:

Wake up around 6am and eat something light before the first fitness session of the day. Around 6:30am start walking to the stadium. 7am is a morning fitness session of either bergpad (mountain trail run), trappe (stadium stairs), or speed and agility. Afterward we’ll walk home, fix ourselves breakfast, and return to the stadium by 9am for 2 or 3 of the following: class, vision, gym, or mental session. Lunch is at 1pm at the local Stellenbosch High School hostel. Between 2 and 3pm the afternoon starts with either another classroom session or a reffing gig! That goes through the evening or finishes quite close to dinner time – 6pm at the hostel. Afternoons of reffing have been things such as trials, youth tournaments, games, and Maties’ club practices. After dinner we return home and unwind, relax, and debrief the day. Sometimes we talk for hours in the common area while other times we do our own things, such as calling people from home, watching movies, reading, playing games, checking our social medial and email when the Internet is on, writing, showering, etc. By 10pm a few of us are usually asleep and by 11 or 12 all of us are definitely asleep.

However, rarely does any day seem to fall exactly into that mold, as unexpected changes, last minute requests, and uncooperative weather constantly keep us on our toes. I like to think that being prepared for the unexpected is good practice for reffing rugby games anyways. I’ve been detailing what our schedules are every day since I arrived in South Africa in a spreadsheet and shared it on my blog here. For the first few weekends we were involved in several youth tournaments, and now that the fall season is in full swing we have Western Province club games on Saturdays along with the tournaments that come our way.

IF I MAY ILLUSTRATE THE FEELING FOR YOU, in terms of my referee development in South Africa, I feel as if I’ve driven over the yellow and red boost pads in Diddy Kong Racing or been Z-button mashing mushrooms in Mario Kart 64, except that the boost has never stopped. Think Rainbow Road (with the spirit, uplifting music, colors, festivity, and odd inexplicable but wonderful flashing neon symbols) but replace the entire road with the ramp from Mario Raceway. Maybe I should call it Rainbow Hyperspeed Dream Road. My yellow brick road? Maties Referees’ Road? Road to iRB? That’s bold.

MY JOURNEY IN SA HAS ALSO LENT ITSELF TO A LOT OF SELF REFLECTION. In the absence of the typical daily worries of my American life back at home, such as paying bills and driving through Boston rush hour, and without the constant buzz of the city, young professional 9-5 responsibilities, a need and means to always be connected to the internet, emails, and media, I’m presented with the unfamiliar freedom and luxury for long precious moments each day to

and think.

IN A FEW WEEKS WE’VE SEEN MORE RUGBY than I would have seen back home in an entire fall season. The amount of rugby we get to referee should be enough to convince anyone of the incredible value of the academy. What’s more is that we are constantly getting valuable feedback as well from Hendrik, Marius, fellow students, assessors, and other coaches. With a plethora of games and often multiple games in one day, we are able to make adjustments and immediately tweak or work on parts of our game. The turnaround time between games is extremely short and extremely beneficial. There are plenty of games to make new mistakes in and to learn from. I think the entrepreneurial catchphrase and mindset, “fail fast”, is an appropriate philosophy, and the academy and this country provide the perfect environment for its application.

I FEEL INCREDIBLY FORTUNATE to be here. This country is so rich in rugby culture and its resources for referee development are world class, if not the best in the world. I’m learning from the best and aiming to be the best. I’m so fortunate to be living and breathing rugby as a full-time academy student. It is a top quality environment in which to “eat, sleep, rugby, and repeat”. Even activities which are seemingly unrelated to rugby can have positive implications for our officiating. I’m getting the rare opportunity to live the dream of so many others – of living rugby 24/7. Again, thank you, thank you, THANK YOU to everyone who has helped me get here and continues to support me. You have my undying gratitude. Finally, thank you to the Hartenbos beach for inspiring me to write these 7 pages in my notebook. This concludes my Halfway Checkpoint. If only this checkpoint were like the ones in video games, where I’ll respawn to this checkpoint if disaster strikes. In real life I have no choice but to continue on. I’m surely not expecting disaster to strike but it would be a nice time traveling token if I could warp back at any time to this weekend in the middle of my rugby dream. I’m very excited and looking forward to the 2nd half of my South African refereeing adventure!!!!!

Halfway Checkpoint

6 thoughts on “Halfway Checkpoint

  1. Sandra says:

    I’m so excited for you Emhsieh! “I’m getting the rare opportunity to live the dream of so many others – of living rugby 24/7” – so true! enjoy!


  2. michelle9w says:

    I LOVE this “Maybe I should call it Rainbow Hyperspeed Dream Road.” That whole paragraph is probably my new favorite descriptive paragraph I’ve read in recent history. Love the Mario Kart 64 reference. Sounds like you really are living the dream!


    1. E says:

      Hahahaha wow thanks!! I’m flattered :D I don’t know if the paragraph even makes complete sense to me… but one of the guys here says if someone doesn’t know me and reads that paragraph, it’s a pretty accurate portrayal of how I think. I’ll take that as a compliment?


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