O'Keefe reaps reward for career choice

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Lynn McConnell     28 Jan 2015     Getty Images

Faced with the realisation that, in spite of his fondest wishes, his playing career was not likely to go any further, he decided at the age of 19, in his second year of studies at Otago University, to enter the refereeing ranks.

That decision was bolstered by a comment his refereeing father Peter made in Marlborough earlier in O'Keefe junior's life that he had found advancement in refereeing was not an option because of his age.

"Dad planted that seed in my mind and I felt I was at a great age and time in my life to enter refereeing which had real potential," O'Keefe said from the Sanzar referee's training camp in Sydney.

O'Keefe was 19, he's now 26, when he made his choice in 2008 and since that time he has worked his way through club, Heartland and ITM Cup ranks, while also gaining experience as a Super Rugby assistant. A clear sign of his potential was evident when he refereed the final of the 2014 Junior World Championship.

Many people had supported O'Keefe at the various levels he had passed through and he was still learning, utilising the experience of former referees like Colin Hawke to gain a wider appreciation of match experience that cannot be learned from a book.

Just as with players, learning was constant as circumstances developed in games.

Making O'Keefe's advance more spectacular is the fact he has maintained his studies to the point where he is now working as a house surgeon at Wellington Hospital and aiming to specialise in ophthalmology.

To achieve that he has had support from his colleagues and managers who have allowed him to work his shifts around his rugby.

Given all the attention that can fall on referees the further up the ladder they move as a result of greater scrutiny of games, O'Keefe said there was a possibility that refereeing could be quite an 'isolating' experience. But his method was to work in with assistant referees and the television match official and the refereeing support in stands at games.

There was something to be said about being out in the middle and contributing to the game. It was the closest seat to the action in the house.

Super Rugby was not the end of his ambitions, to say otherwise would not be telling the truth, he said. However, he was aware that he was entering a new level of involvement and there would be many new experiences and situations to deal with.

There would be external pressures, and media pressures but they would all be helpful in adding to the calibre he brought to his role.

Having moved among his Super Rugby peers in Sydney this week, O'Keefe said he had been welcomed and immediately felt part of the 16-strong team that will be involved in Super Rugby refereeing this year.

"I found, talking with the Australians and South Africans, that we are all very alike in terms of our passion for the game," he said.

Other New Zealanders on the 2015 panel are: Nick Briant, Mike Fraser, Glen Jackson and Chris Pollock.