Gavin Badger will never forget his debut game as a NRL referee. That’s hardly surprising when you consider he ended up on his backside after being barrelled over by a Brisbane Bronco.
The year was 2004 and Badger, who will celebrate his 350th game when he officiates in the match between Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks and the Warriors at PointsBet Stadium on Saturday, was about to control his first game between the Broncos and South Sydney Rabbitohs at Suncorp Stadium.
Brisbane captain Gorden Tallis, who Badger had met the previous season after running the touch line for a match between the Broncos and North Queensland Cowboys in Townsville, approached him with some friendly words of encouragement at the coin toss.
“Hey Badge,” Tallis said. “I’m going to be nice to you today. It will be the first time I’ve ever been nice to referees.”
The two teams take the field and it’s not long before Broncos enforcer Carl Webb has made a break and is steaming towards the line to score a try.
Badger is standing in front of Webb and thinks he is going to plant the ball over the line but the Brisbane forward has other ideas and palms him out of the way to score closer to the goalposts.
“I went flying, got knocked over and did a big backflip,” Badger told nswrl.com.au
“I got up and as I was walking back for the goal kick Gorden Tallis came up to me and goes, “Badge, if you’re going to hit Webby you’ve got to hit him low”.”
Badger, 45, will become the third most-capped referee in Rugby League history when he hits the 350-game milestone on Saturday. He now only has Bill Harrigan (392) and Ben Cummins (357) in front of him and admits that retirement is the furthest thing from his mind.
“I love it and I’m dreading the time when it’s not there, absolutely dreading it,” Badger said.
“It’s not just the 80 minutes on the field, it’s the week with all the boys.
“I liken it to being at school. I get a roster for the week of where I’ve got to be and what time and then we’ve got footy on the weekends just like when I was at school. I’m just a big kid who doesn’t want to grow up.
“And I think a big reason why I’m still around is because of my physical fitness and I never take anything for granted. There’s so many people who would love to do one (game) so I’ve got to make sure I’m always at the top of my game.”
As for whether he can keep going to claim Harrigan’s record, it took a conversation with the man himself – and a man regarded as the greatest whistleblower of all time - to put Badger’s mind at ease about it.
“That’s not something that I’m chasing but I actually spoke about it when I got my 300th,” Badger said.
“Someone asked me about passing Billy’s record and I said it would be very hard. I said it would be like when (former Australian cricket captain) Mark Taylor declared on the same score as Don Bradman because I don’t think I’d deserve to pass Billy’s.
“I remember Billy gave me a phone call and called me an idiot and said if the opportunity’s there make sure you take it.”