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It’s not often referees have their own cheer squad at games but that’s what happened to Kieren Irons when he made his NRL debut as touch judge for the Round Eight game between Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and Parramatta Eels at Stadium Australia.

To mark the occasion, Irons was not only joined by his friends and family but also by a large number of his NSWRL colleagues in the officiating squad did as well.

“He’s a popular member of our squad and one of our leaders but I was still moved to see quite a few referees have so much respect for Kieren that they went to watch his game,” NSWRL Referees High Performance Manager Stuart Raper said.

“I’m really proud of him for getting his promotion. And I’m proud of our squad for the bond they have in supporting one another.”

Irons has been attracting followers for some time. He won the Grades Referee of the Year award at the NSWRL Brad Fittler Medal dinner in 2019 and has been in the High Performance squad for six years, after several years officiating in Junior Representative competitions.

“It’s a similar pathway to a rugby league player but it takes a bit longer for referees,” Raper said.

“Some players make their NRL debut at 19 or 20 but it’s very rare you get referees making their debuts at NSW Cup matches at that age.

“You have to bide your time, get that experience, get that level of maturity and work your way up the ranks through our grades from Junior Reps through to Jersey Flegg, Sydney Shield, Ron Massey Cup and then NSW Cup.

“Then once you’re in those last two competitions you have the chance to progress to the NRL. We’ve had a transition coach to help with that.”

Current NRL referees boss Jared Maxell was the transition coach at NSWRL, when Raper started in 2017.

Irons was scheduled to officiate as touch judge in the Round Nine Wests Tigers v Gold Coast Titans game at Campbelltown Stadium but due to increased COVID restrictions he will be back in The Knock-On Effect NSW Cup until those protocols are eased.

“He’s a very level-headed guy…  he’s just got one of those mature heads that says the right thing at the right time,’ Raper said.

“And he’s calm – that’s a big thing for referee, when everything is getting frantic you still remain calm and think clearly.”