Just before his moment of personal triumph, refereeing the Rugby World Cup final this Sunday, Craig Joubert will sit quietly and think of someone no longer here.
The South African, at just 33 chosen to be the youngest referee at any of the seven Rugby World Cup finals, may raise his eyes skywards with a respectful nod and a wink. “I hope he is sitting up there somewhere watching. I like to think that.”
Joubert has in mind his beloved late father Des, a referee himself back home in KwaZulu-Natal and the man who, all those years ago, put his son on that long, long road to a Rugby World Cup final.
Joubert never played rugby as a game. Not through lack of ambition, but pragmatism. “I was like any other young kid when I was young. I kicked balls around in the backyard and dreamt of being the new Naas Botha.”
Home was in Kloof, between Durban and Maritzburg.
And although it soon became increasingly evident that the dream was not going to become reality, Joubert got to a World Cup final by another route.
“The path I chose has allowed me to do it. I aspired to being a Springbok but I wasn’t good enough. But I am pleased to have got to this level by another route.”
The person instrumental in setting him in that direction was his dad, who introduced him to the world of refereeing. He started at 16, while still at school, taking courses to qualify and then handling his first games.
“In those early days, I would sometimes do four games in a single day,” he remembered.
Tired out, he would return home and discuss his day’s work with his dad, always his lifelong supporter, confidant and fan.
So when Joubert’s father contracted cancer and eventually died in 1995, the then-17-year-old was shattered. “When he died it was a tough blow to get over. I was really close to him as a man but also we shared refereeing.
“The one thing I would really want, would give anything for, is that my dad was here. That was my first thought when I heard I had been given the final. I wish he was here.”
But other members of his family will be. Joubert woke his mom in the middle of the night at home in South Africa to tell her he was to be the World Cup final referee.
A very emotional experience it doubtless was.
And within hours, his mother and her brother, the uncle who had become like a mentor to Joubert after his father’s death, were on a plane for Auckland. They will watch the final and share a unique family moment. “My uncle has been like a father figure to me in my life since dad died,” he said.
Joubert’s wife Charmaine and their two-year-old son Max are with him in Auckland to cheer him on and will also attend.
By eschewing a playing career and going straight into refereeing, not a usual scenario in the game, Joubert ensured that for someone of just 33, he has a huge amount of experience. His emergence for the first time in his career as a World Cup final referee is a triumph for that strategy and a tribute to his much-loved late father.
The life of a referee can be lonely. In 2007 he counted up that he spent over 200 days of the year overseas. This year, it has been 160. He has made four trips to New Zealand alone, refereed in Australia and been three times to Europe.
Then there are all the internal flights and weekends away around South Africa.
“I came back to New Zealand this year twice for Super 15 matches and twice for Tri-Nations. That is a pretty standard year. We have a referees’ conference in Sydney in January and from February on, the new Super 15 season starts again and there are 6 Nations matches in the northern hemisphere.
“It is a big chunk of travelling, but… is not as bad as it used to be because now we can referee the all-South African matches in the Super 15. Before that, we would spend much longer in Australia and New Zealand.”
It was easier for him in a family sense when he and his wife were on their own. It isn’t quite as straightforward now that little Max occupies much of their lives.
Yet at 33, Joubert could easily remain on the world refereeing stage for at least another 12 years and maybe cover another three Rugby World Cups after this one.
“In theory, yes, if I maintain my standards, I could do 12 more years. That is possible for me because I started much younger than most people.
“But I will have to work really hard to maintain my physical standards and manage the travel part of it all to make sure my career can last as long as I would like it to. However, I don’t think you can look too far into the future.”
Wouldn’t he get bored with all that rugby and travelling long before then? “I don’t think I will get bored with rugby, ever.
“We do a thorough review of our performances after each game so there are always things to learn that come out of that process. It’s like golf, you never master it.”
No, maybe not, but you can still be pretty good at it. In this case, Joubert would appear to be pretty good at both. His appointment to Sunday’s World Cup final confirms his high pedigree in the world of rugby refereeing and he plays golf off a useful seven handicap.
But Des Joubert did not just teach his son refereeing.
He taught him to be humble, to listen to others with views to offer and demonstrate modesty even amid his achievements.
Craig Joubert today is the living embodiment of his late father’s many values.