An injury to NRL referee Tim Robinson in 2016 provided him with an unexpected window into the world of Wheelchair Rugby League (WRL). Since then Robinson has devoted his time and focus to refereeing the exciting wheelchair sport – and he has just been appointed as a World Cup referee.
The International Rugby League (IRL) has announced its squad of officials for the Rugby League World Cup scheduled for November 2021 in England, and Australia’s Tim Robinson will be one of the eight main international referees.
The squad will prepare for two weeks in Sheffield then officiate at Wheelchair Rugby League games in London or Sheffield, held as part of the International Rugby League World Cup.
Robinson was a strong candidate for a top refereeing job, despite his relatively new conversion to the ‘wheelchair game’. He has been refereeing Rugby League games since 1992 and in the High Performance Squad since 2015.
In 2016 when the NRL’s Steve Clark suggested the experienced ref try WRL, Robinson barely knew there was a wheelchair variation of his beloved rugby league, but he simply responded, “No worries. I’ll give it a go,” he says.
Refereeing the wheelchair game had a lighter physical impact and less running, which suited his injury recovery program, explains Robinson, although he did find that the mental workout was probably greater. “WRL is more mentally challenging because of all the things you may have to look at.”
WRL is a uniquely inclusive sport, featuring players of disability and different ages and genders, with just two abled players permitted on the court per each team. The game was devised by a French Rugby League player in 2004.
Freshly retrained as a wheelchair ref, in 2017 Robinson would soon embrace a very steep learning curve with his first taste of international footy. “The steep learning curve was getting over to France and refereeing the first game of the World Cup – England versus France,” says Robinson. He likens the difference in intensity to the difference between running around in local district park football and being thrown into an NRL game.
“I went over there not knowing what to expect and was basically thrown into the deep end with that first England versus France game. It was a real eye opener. Everything just lifted massively – the difference in speed, the professionalism, everything happened so much quicker. It was just like ‘Wow, this is what this game is about.’”
For this year’s World Cup, a selection panel studied videos of WRL games previously refereed to assess the past performance of candidates. From an international field they selected eight referees including Tim Robinson.
Robinson has only watched a video of the World Cup Final between England and France, which he refereed, recently, “It just happened so quickly. It was so intense and mentally exhausting that it’s a blur to me.”
Since making the transition to Wheelchair Rugby League refereeing, Robinson has enjoyed the style and qualities of the sport including the great crowd atmosphere. Although he was fairly immune to routine crowd abuse of the ref and the players in the running game, he does appreciate the friendly WRL crowds. He still relishes the opportunity for some banter with the players – “If they start sledging me I’m not afraid of sledging back”– but it is less frequent. “A little bit comes from the players every now and again but you keep that in check. If they go over the top then I’m not afraid to take action. I find that I have a good rapport with all the players and they know how far they can push things with me before it goes too far. It’s all pretty good.”
Although he is busy enough with his regular shifts working as a Light Rail driver in Sydney, Robinson is eager for this World Cup to go ahead as planned. Like all the players and officials, he is aware that it could be postponed depending on Covid-19 conditions in the UK this November. Having experienced the intensity of refereeing a World Cup wheelchair final, which he describes as “the highlight of my career in any game of football,” he is keen to do so again.
He recommends that any qualified ‘running game’ referees who are interested in wheelchair sports and want to broaden their experience should consider Wheelchair Rugby League. “Give this a go because I guarantee you the opportunities are there to referee representative and possibly international games. Come along and watch a WRL game and have a go. Since I first did it, I haven’t looked back.”