Tony still loves his rugby refereeing involvement!

Tony Pratt and fellow refs

Tony Pratt is rightly regarded as one of the best referees to come out of Pembrokeshire over recent decades and in our new feature on match officials in the oval ball game we were delighted to catch up with him to find out more about his being in the middle – and his exciting involvement during the pandemic, where he is an official at the highest level!

We asked Tony these questions:
How did you start out as a rugby referee?
“I never considered being a rugby referee whilst playing rugby through school and college, or whilst working in New Zealand and back playing in West Wales for St Clears.”

So where did it all begin?
“Whilst working for a local agricultural company I had two work colleagues, Richard Hughes and Colin Davies, who after hearing I had given up playing urged me to take up the whistle and join the Pembrokeshire Society of Rugby Union Referees, that met once a month for discussion and training.”

Can you still recall your first match?
“My first meeting with the PSRUR gave me more encouragement with Colin Davies as chair of the meeting and Roger Penn, treasurer; and with members such as Eirian Edwards, Keith Davies, Andrew Miles and John Griffiths.

“So my first experience with the whistle was in St Davids doing an under 16 game, encouraged by Keith Bryant, who took some flattering photos and built up my confidence for the following weekend game, a youth fixture in Whitland.

“I officiated locally for three seasons with the odd exchange to Ireland and the occasional cup game up the line, and having the honour of doing the likes of the Pembrokeshire Youth Cup Final and the Seconds’ Cup Final.”
What games stick in your mind from that time?
“The highlight came at the end of the three years with my being the first Pembrokeshire referee to officiate at the Millennium Stadium for the Welsh under 19 cup final between Cardiff and Aberavon, with Eirian Edwards and Rob Lane as assistant referees and Marc James as No 3 official.

“We worked well as a team and the match went smoothly. It was played under lights, with the roof closed, and I will never forget walking out onto the hallowed turf at the Millennium Stadium.

“It was held on a Monday evening with only a small crowd but a future international fly half  in James Hook played in that game and needless to say the Pembrokeshire group, including the late Keith Bryant, had a fantastic evening. At the end of that season I was promoted to the national league for the WRU and would be sent to clubs all over Wales.”

As you moved up the ladder who helped you?
“It was a steep learning curve but I enjoyed it from the outset and then I must have satisfied my assessors because I was invited to join the WRU’s referees’ panel and started out in divisions five and six of the National League set-up, which meant travelling much further afield.
“Clive Norling was the refs’ supremo then and now the Director of Match Officials.  Paul Adams, with Robert Yemen and Nigel Whitehouse, who have encouraged me to raise my standards. As you climb through the grades, though, fitness is something that always needs improving and I have worked hard at that. I train twice a week, swim two mornings a week and cycle during the summer.”
Has the local referees' society been a help?
“During my 20 years as a member of the PSRUR I was honoured to hold at different times the positions of secretary, treasurer and chairman, and enjoyed them all in different ways.

“The meetings were very informative and inspiring with the now professional referees coming along; the likes of Nigel Whitehouse and  Nigel  Owens delivering training topics along with tales of their experiences in world rugby – it was brilliant!
“It is also important to say that there is a great camaraderie amongst its members which is never more evident than in the county junior finals or the Neyland Junior Tournament, where they congregate, share the duties throughout a long day.”
Humour aplenty – and the odd down side?
There has also been humour aplenty amongst the refs themselves, not least when a group of us at the monthly meeting were invited to officiate at the Newport Sevens. Amongst them was the afore-mentioned Rob Lane, who was in Pembrokeshire with the army, but when the matches started at Newport (Pembs) he still hadn’t arrived – and a phone call revealed that he was waiting for us to join him – in Newport (Gwent)!
“On the opposite end of the scale, I’ve rarely had the feeling of ‘What am I doing here?’ but can recall one cold, wet Friday evening match under lights in a local derby between Tumble and Amman United where the game started with a huge punch-up and slowly went downhill from there.
“Fortunately, those games are few and far between,” admits Tony with a chuckle, “but they can happen and all you can do is make sure that you keep your eyes peeled and keep a lid on things.”
“Luckily, I usually enjoy a good rapport with players and finds that a smile when a comment is made from the stand helps, even if it does question my parentage or my eyesight!”
Have you played any other sports?
“Outside of my refereeing, I enjoy most sports, having played rugby for Whitland Grammar School as a scrum half, turning out for Aberystwyth Agricultural College during my student days and also enjoying a spell in New Zealand where I played for a team called Hautupu.
“They had seven senior sides and I was playing for their thirds when it was time to leave the Southern Hemisphere. I also played for St Clears for a couple of seasons but a knee injury forced me to stop playing.
“I also enjoy football and played in school and college, as well as for Camrose for a while alongside characters like Nicky Elliott, Taffy Williams and Marco Siso.
“Although I am perhaps best known in local sport as a rugby referee I’ve been playing golf now for many years years at Milford Haven Golf Club and  playing off a handicap of 15 - and I joined Matthew Hearne, a golf professional at Milford Haven and Haverfordwest Golf Clubs, who is a scratch golfer, plus Mark Owen and Andrew Sparks, members at Haverfordwest Golf Club who play off respective handicaps of five and six, on a 12-day golfing trip to Florida, where we met the great Arnold Palmer.
“I also played badminton to county level when I was a lad and have started playing the game again as a means of keeping fit.  Ask me about support for my sport and I would unhesitatingly nominate my wife Karen, son Carwyn and daughter Eleanor, plus dad Roger and mum Jenny.”
Can you tell us about your involvement at a higher level?

“From starting in the lower leagues and working up to the premiership and travelling the principality it led to my being asked to start taking the role of 4th official at the professional end of the game with the Pro 14 European Cup and then international games.
“I am currently active in this role and it is always satisfying to see local lads playing for the regions at the Scarlets, Ospreys, Dragons and Blues.”

Have there been games you will never forget?
“The highlight of doing this role so far was being chosen as fourth official at the vital game between Wales and Ireland in March 2019, in Cardiff, where Wales won the Grand Slam.

“Officials that day were Angus Gardner of Australia (referee) with Ben O’Keefe of New Zealand and Karl Dickson of England.  Also in the team of officials that day were Gwyn Morris, Ben Breakspear, Marius Jonker (TMO) Reg  Hughes (Timekeeper) and  Shaun Gallagher (Citing ). Most people don’t realise that the officials at an international match are three on field, three off field for subs, time keeper, TMO and citing commissioner. 

“It was fantastic to stay in Cardiff that weekend and attend all the match functions pre and post–match, and walking through the crowds from the hotel to the stadium, with well-wishers shouting good luck.

And finally . . .

“I have been lucky enough to be involved with several international games now and the most enjoyable was Wales versus Barbarians in November 2019 as it featured Warren Gatland as coach of the Baa Baas and Wayne Pivac in his first game as the national coach, with Nigel Owens refereeing.

“My fellow officials that day were Nigel Owens, Dan Jones, Gwyn Morris, Elgan Williams, Carwyn Williams, Ian Davies, Huw Lewis and David McHugh.

“This was the most enjoyable fixture as it was a lot more relaxed than a full international, with the Baa Baas including Ireland’s Rory Best in his last international game.

“I am not sure how many more years I will be involved with refereeing but I would encourage anyone who enjoys the game to take it up as you can make many friends and travel the world if you can get to the top like Nigel Owens has achieved and, most importantly, at any level you would be doing a great service to rugby because without a referee there would be no game!"