For over two decades Dilroy Fernando has overcome several challenges on local rugby fields as a referee to earn the reputation of being one of the most respected and dignified figures in the game. But last week Fernando made indications that he would step away from refereeing, stating that he no longer enjoyed controlling the [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

Veteran ref Dilroy blows whistle on stellar career


For over two decades Dilroy Fernando has overcome several challenges on local rugby fields as a referee to earn the reputation of being one of the most respected and dignified figures in the game. But last week Fernando made indications that he would step away from refereeing, stating that he no longer enjoyed controlling the game which he loved more than his life. Coincidentally, his announcement comes at a time when local rugby is seeing escalating violence and unruly spectator behaviour. 

“I anyway wanted to call it a day. Earlier I thought I would go ahead for at least two more years but then again I thought this is it. I believe it’s better to retire when I’m at the top, not waiting till people ask me to,” a partly-dejected Fernando told the Sunday Times in an exclusive interview.

A veteran of over 550 domestic school and club rugby matches, who has also officiated at over 25 international test matches and at several Sevens competitions around the world, Fernando said that officiating rugby games is proving to be riskier than ever.

“The amount of violence that has dominated the present rugby circle probably played a big role in my decision of retiring. If there is no respect from the players and the spectators for the referee, then I don’t think it’s wise to waste our time anymore with the whistle.
“When you take the last few games, almost every one of them ended with an issue. It shows that players are not disciplined anymore and above all authorities concerned have done nothing to control the spectator violence that is arising at a greater level. In addition, if you take school rugby in particular, this year there is a drastic change in standards and so is the clubs. You can’t say rugby standards have improved though many say so,” he said.

Fernando too has been subjected to harassment by spectators who claim to be more conversant in the game even than those who had represented schools, clubs and even the country at the highest level. Fernando says that he too was manhandled and verbally and physically abused, but he said that with great commitment he found his way to the pinnacle of rugby refereeing. Fernando stated that he always stayed positive in order to become what he is at present while admitting that he had very few regrets during his career, which began in 1991.

“You need to have clear-cut discipline procedures to discipline players and other stakeholders of the game. For a long time, there has been talk in the circle on the number of refereeing mistakes. Yes, referees have made mistakes in the past, they are committing them at present and they will continue to make mistakes, not only in Sri Lanka but also internationally.

“If there is a mistake there is a forum that you can go to. That is the proven way of doing things internationally. But here in Sri Lanka it’s not the same. Spectators should not try to take the law into their hands and do the job of authorities. That will naturally lead the way to violence,” Fernando said.

Fernando holds high regard for one of the much-looked forward to school rugby encounters of Sri Lanka, the Bradby Shield. He has already officiated 19 of those games and most probably his 20th will be one of this year’s two games.

“I have done 19 Bradby Shield games and the farewell game will be my 20th from a total of over 550 rugby matches at school and club level in Sri Lanka. The Bradby is one the games I really enjoy as a referee. For a Sri Lankan rugby referee, it’s an out-of-this-world experience. It’s more than rugby. The atmosphere is electrifying; it’s amazing to control a game in front of a massive crowd that will sometimes come near 20,000. School games draw big crowds but a Bradby is something special. There are followers of both teams coming all the way from different parts of the world just for the game. The person who referees should justify this game by providing good entertainment. That is the reason why the Bradby Shield is so special to me. On invitation I might continue appear at Bradby Shield encounters in the future,” revealed Fernando who pointed out that one of the reasons referees have lost dignity nowadays is due to the conduct of a handful.

Fernando, who is an International Rugby Board (IRB) educated referee trainer, has conducted many programmes around the world. He remembers his early days as a referee, a career he sought after being compelled to retire from rugbby at the age of 26. Until then Fernando played for Isipathana, Havelocks, and CR&FC before being selected into the Sri Lankan team as a flanker and centre. His playing career ended after he burst his appendix during a game.

“No-one taught me the trade and I just controlled the game with my knowledge as a player until one fine day, Mr. U.L. Kaluarachchi, a former Royalist and top referee came up and complimented me. He simply said, ‘You do a damn good job, why don’t you start refereeing big games.’ Then I asked him how do I do that? That’s when he gave me a book he authored titled ‘Art of refereeing’. It was a masterpiece which taught me all the tits and bits on refereeing. I still have the book with me. He presented that book to me in 1990 signed ‘for an enjoyable and fruitful refereeing career’. I didn’t think of coming so far. Then Mr. Ajita Abeyratne saw me one of the junior games and invited me to apply as a referee. But I never got a reply from the Referees’ Society. But later Mr. Abeyratne prompted me to do some school games. Then I refereed my first Top Division Club match on June 15, 1991 the game between Kandy SC and Police in Kandy.”

“During that time, we had to buy our own whistles and jerseys. My first jersey and whistle was given to me my Mr. Tony Amit, who was a top player, coach and referee. I had the help of Tony, Vipula Dharmadasa, S.W. Chang and Roshan Deen and I wanted to be like them, at their level which I achieved very soon. After all four of them retired, it was Aruna Jayasekara, Nizam Jamaldeen and D. Nimal who kept me going. Also there is Talu who runs Power World, who help me plan my training. In general the rugby fraternity has given me my due respect and so have most of the spectators, but there are a few who sit and blame the referee. I challenge them and will be ready to provide them with a jersey and a whistle if one of them is willing to run and control a game and not come out without blame. Rugby refereeing has become an unappreciated job today,” concluded Fernando, who is longing for a relaxed time off with his wife and two daughters.

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