DURBAN – Gilfillan, perched on the fields of Hilton College - in the hills of the KwaZulu-Natal midlands - will be the unlikely scene for the full-circle completion of one of South Africa’s most recognised whistle-blowing careers.
On 16 June, Craig Joubert will run out as a rugby referee for the last time, and he will do so at the very level that he started out on, way back when he was still a schoolboy at Maritzburg College, down the hill.
“It’s pretty special, in that sense, and I am, very grateful to be given the opportunity to finish off my career in this manner,” Joubert said this week.
His final fixture is no small fry, either, as he will officiate the massive derby between schooling aristocrats, Hilton and Michaelhouse. It is a high-profile affair, with an audience that stretches right around the world.
“It is a great way to finish off, and I am really looking forward to it. Rugby has allowed me to travel the world, and make some wonderful memories, but it started here, watching my father reffing. So it is very special to be able to come back to where it started,” Joubert, pictured, said.
The 40-year-old is putting his whistle to rest in order to throw all his energies into the next batch of officials, in his job as Referee Talent Development Coach with World Rugby.
His emphasis is on Sevens rugby, and he has already been in the role for over a year, with his sights firmly set on the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.
“I was very lucky when I was offered the opportunity to do this, because I realised that I had come towards the end of my 15-man career. This new role gives me a chance to really give back to the game, but also to be part of an exciting new era for rugby,” he explained.
The timing of his new role was perfect for Joubert, and he admits that he was already contemplating getting back into the corporate world that was co-existing with his 15-man gig. Once World Rugby offered the “dream job”, his mind was made up.
“I could have stayed in the 15-man game until the 2019 World Cup, but I had already achieved most of what I wanted to. I have been to a World Cup, been involved in some big matches internationally and domestically, so it really was time to start a new chapter,” he added.
New lease of life
Joubert was a recent speaker at a Coaching Academy clinic at Kingsmead, where he passed on some of his management experiences to aspiring young coaches from KZN. Being tasked with leading and mentoring a new crop of referees has given him a new lease of life, he says.
“The game has evolved, and we now have things like conditioning coaches for referees,” Joubert said.
“It has been great to blend my initial experiences with everything that is coming into the game now. I am basically the conduit between the officials and the teams, and that is a role I enjoy. It’s always great to sit down with the teams, and discuss changes in the game, and try and provide a better product for all of us.”
The pinnacle for the referees that Joubert is currently working with is to be an official at the Olympics. He himself was part of the refereeing panel at the Rio Games, and he says it was an unimaginable experience.
“It is an incredible stage. I was blown away by the size of it, and it is wonderful that Sevens rugby is back on that stage. As soon as Rio was over, I was already looking forward to 2020,” Joubert said.
Looking back on his overall career, Joubert admitted that there had been some hilarious stories on and off the field - including some run-ins with some of the cheekiest players in the game.
“In my very first game of Super Rugby, I had the Brumbies against the Crusaders,” Joubert recalled.
“I was very nervous, obviously, considering the calibre of players on either side. I knew that I would be put under pressure, and had spoken to a few of the experienced refs to prepare me for the occasion.”
Within 10 minutes, Joubert realised that he had to stamp his authority on proceedings, with opinions flying at him from all sides.
“Gents, there are about 15 referees on the field right now,” Joubert shrilled.
The legendary Brumbies scrumhalf, George Gregan, was never short of a word of advice to officials, and he didn’t miss his cue.
“Yeah, mate, and you’re not even in the top 10,” Gregan said.
Joubert likely won’t get such advice at Gilfillan, but he says it is those experiences that he will miss the most, and he is thrilled to be able to give back to a game that has provided him with plenty.