Group 9 referee Ben Whitby will gear up for the biggest game of his career when he takes the whistle for Sunday’s Grand Final between the Tumut Blues and Wagga Kangaroos at McDonald’s Park.
Whitby was thrilled to be handed the opportunity by Group 9 Referee’s Association Director Tony Fletcher, who announced the appointment earlier this week.
“It’s something I’ve had down as a goal for a fair while, and I’ve been working towards it for five or six years,” Whitby said.
“It’s a great reward for this year, but for me, the road to this game has been a lot longer than this year, and I’m really proud of this opportunity.”
The 34-year-old will become just the fourth referee since 1996 to control a Group 9 Grand Final, following in the footsteps of Tony Fletcher (1996-2000), Bernie Nix (2001-11, 2013-16), and Scott Muir (2012, 2017-2022).
“It’s an honour, really, and a bit humbling when you look at the names of the guys that have refereed First Grade Grand Finals,” Whitby said.
“Only three other guys since 1996 have done the middle, and I’ve been lucky enough to line for Scott and Bernie in several Grand Finals, and in my younger days, I lined for Fletch.
“Plus, only 11 referees have been in the middle in the modern era of Group 9, so it means there has been a pretty high standard, and to be considered good enough, it’s pretty special.”
Whitby started out refereeing in 2000 as a fresh-faced 12-year-old. By 2004, he was refereeing Under 16s while cutting his teeth in the strong Group 9 competition.
A business banker by trade, Whitby spent a year refereeing the Group 20 competition in 2009 due to work commitments but was soon back in Wagga and has been a regular face in the Group 9 competition.
In recent years, he’s joined the top tier of referees in the Riverina, but he explained that it didn’t happen overnight and that he was looking forward to Sunday.
“I’ve learned a lot over the years, and my first year doing a First Grade semi-final was 2019, and even then, that was a bit of a bucket list item I was able to tick off,” Whitby said.
“I learned a lot that year, and I’ve refereed more finals games since then, and I’ve learned not to change too much, keep to the status quo, and just enjoy the week and the opportunity.
“Yes, on the day, there will be some nerves, but I’ve just got to go out there and do the best job I can do.”
Boasting a friendly demeanour and excellent communication skills, Whitby has quickly become one of the more popular adjudicators among players, and was this year voted the Group 9 Referee of the Year.
Still, he’s not afraid to make tough decisions, and he said that the teams would dictate the game’s flow on Sunday in what is expected to be a fast-paced contest played in warmer than usual conditions.
“It will be up to the players on Sunday, and if they let the game flow, then that will be my style, and I hope that’s the case and we get a good game,” Whitby said.
“Still, if I need to get involved and make a decision, I will. I will be out there to make all decisions without emotions and try and make the right decision each time.”
Whitby agrees with the perception that he has the best seat in the house for Sunday.
“As a fan of Rugby League, it’s really enjoying to referee, and that's why we do it,” he said.
“I get to see everything up close and personal, and it's great.”
Group 9 Referee’s Association Director Tony Fletcher was thrilled to appoint Whitby for such a prestigious game.
“For once, he had a go, and he gave it his all,” Fletcher said.
“Ben’s biggest opponent is himself, and I’ve found this year that he refereed the game that is in front of him, and he has come ahead in leaps and bounds.
“Plus, he handles man management very well and deserves the chance on Sunday.”
Working with experienced referees Dwayne Ryan and Sam Went, who will be running the lines, Whitby will have a good support team backing him. Fletcher said that was an important aspect to consider when making Grand Final appointments.
“They complement one another really well, and the teamwork between the three of them is great,” Fletcher said.
“If something happens in the back play, we want those fellas to be all over it so you get it right, and that teamwork needs to be there, which I'm confident it will be.”
Fletcher, a stalwart of the Group 9 referee ranks, does a great job with his senior and junior referees.
Referees in Group 9 undertake an entire pre-season and train weekly, focusing on fitness, improvement and development.
Fletcher and his team will have a big job on Sunday when refereeing five Group 9 Grand Finals.
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