Monday, 15 August 2022

From international rugby referee to headteacher

AS headteacher of Shiplake College, Gregg Davies is used to dealing with the occasional troublesome teenager.

AS headteacher of Shiplake College, Gregg Davies is used to dealing with the occasional troublesome teenager.

So what better practice for overseeing the college’s hundreds of young pupils than a career as an international rugby referee?

Before joining the independent school in 2004, Mr Davies spent almost a decade as the man in black for club and international matches.

The 54-year-old, who was born in Wrexham, was a talented sportsman as a boy, representing Gwent at rugby and also playing football.

Mr Davies recalls: “I was at fly-half for the national rugby trials with Rob Ackerman, who later played scrum half for Wales. I never got the ball! At 15 I got into the national squad but didn’t get a cap.

“I also had a trial for Welsh football and was on the books at Wrexham as well as running for Wales. It was a busy sporting time.

“I was a right-back in football and used to mark Ian Rush quite often. I was as fast as him over 40m but was never as quick over 2m. If you’re trying to mark someone in the box movement like that is key.

“I had to decide whether to accept a scholarship to Shrewsbury School or take up terms with Birmingham City FC. I knew I would never be as good as Ian and my mum was very honest with me — she basically said I had the opportunity to go to Shrewsbury and should take it and that’s what I decided to do.”

At Shrewsbury he captained the rugby and football teams and his sporting excellence earned him a scholarship to Kent School in  Connecticut.

“They were expecting a rower but instead they got someone who had never rowed,” says Mr Davies. “I played American football while I was there and that was always great fun.

“In the end I learnt to row and found myself in the first boat. At 6ft 1in and 13st, I was the shortest and lightest on the boat, even in a schoolboy crew. We won the national championships in 1980, which was the last time the school won until 2010.”

Mr Davies went on to study at St Andrew’s University in Scotland, where he captained the rugby and athletics teams. He played at full-back for the Scottish Universities football team as well as serving as president of the university’s athletics society.

His first teaching job was at Haberdashers’ Aske’s School in Hertfordshire as a biology teacher and rugby and athletics coach. However, he was forced to take a break from playing due to eye problems.

He then moved to Fettes College in Edinburgh, where he first tried refereeing. Mr Davies says: “I was about 35 then and went back to playing with Scottish side Corstorphine.

“I lasted about two games before damaging my hamstring. When you are being piled into by 20-year-old flankers it hurts in a way it didn’t when you were 20. I started refereeing, initially just schoolboy, before joining the Edinburgh referee rugby society. Over the next five years I climbed the rankings. I had a really quick progression, which I think was because I was a bit older and had done a lot of coaching.”

In 2001, Mr Davies refereed at the under-21s world cup in South Africa and took charge of the final between New Zealand and Australia.

He said: “As a referee I was smiley and respectful and used humour. You can diffuse a situation so much by smiling. You can’t do your job if you don’t have the co-operation of the players.

“The guy who impressed me most at that world cup was Sergio Parisi, who still plays for Italy. He was the stand-out player at that competition — he was big, athletic and hard.

“South Africa had a scrum half called Joost van der Westhuizen who would just talk non-stop. He had very piercing eyes and it was a battle of wills as to who would win.

“He would chat all the time at the back of a ruck or maul, telling you what the other team were doing wrong and looking for a penalty. You had to close your ears for a lot of it because you could be pressured into a decision if you weren’t careful.”

Back home, he refereed one match between Harlequins and Caerphilly in which England prop Jason Leonard was playing.

“I’ll never forget it,” says Mr Davies. “In the first scrum Jason had the opposition prop on toast. This prop was all over the place and it was men against boys. I took the view this could be dangerous because Quins had a big support so when the scrum collapsed on the other side I took the opportunity to call Jason over.

“I put my hand over my microphone and told him I wanted the game to go safely and he had one of two options — I could penalise him, even though he had done nothing wrong, or he could work with me.

“He said ‘yes, I’ll work with you’. That was just fantastic, he could have made that game a nightmare but he didn’t.”

At club level, Mr Davies refereed in the Celtic League and also European Cup matches. He remembers one game in France in 2003 between Perpignan and Celtic Warriors where the locals had a special welcome for visitors.

He said: “Perpignon in December is like summer here and in the morning the touch judges and myself were walking around the market. We couldn’t understand why people were buying lots of rotten fruit, mostly tomatoes.

“When we started reffing the game Celtic Warriors scored a try early on in the corner. Gareth Thomas was taking the conversion and usually the referee stands behind the kicker so he can see the player, ball and posts.

“Gareth told me not to stand anywhere near him. When I asked why he said it was because I would get rotten tomatoes thrown at me!”

Mr Davies also recalls a French First Division game between Narbonne and Beziers, which was broadcast live on French TV, so the audience at home could hear what he said into his microphone.

“A massive fight kicked off between two of the second row forwards and everyone ran in. As a referee you sometimes feel pathetic in that situation, standing there smaller than everyone else and blowing your whistle in the hope that will stop them. I called the two over and gave them an absolute dressing down. I didn’t spare any language and made it clear they would walk next time.

“When I got back to the changing room I got a call on my mobile phone. I thought it would be someone from the rugby union to see how I had got on but it was my mum. She had somehow found this channel on TV and watched the game. She couldn’t understand any of it apart from when I was speaking.

“She told me, ‘if I ever hear you use language like that again I will be down there to sort you out, is that clear?’ I said sorry to her before thinking, ‘hang on, I’m 42 years old!’”

The biggest match he took charge of was England A v Ireland A in Dublin in 2003. Clive Woodward was in charge of England as they prepared for what was to be their victorious world cup campaign.

Mr Davies says: “They used to hold the A games the night before the seniors match and this game had players like Mark Cueto and Simon Best. They were all players coming back from injury or just about to break through. It was a tight game and Ireland won with the last kick of the game from a penalty I had given on the halfway line. Mr Woodward was not happy.

“I was also touch judge in the Six Nations in 2004, which was just before I came down to Shiplake. I did England v Italy in Rome where Jason Robinson received a pass from Phil Vickery, who then nearly took me out on the line. I had to dance out of his way and then try to catch Robinson. There’s a picture of him coming down to the try line and an ambling guy trying to catch up with him!”

Mr Davies was offered a full-time role by the Scottish RFU but decided to hang up his whistle in 2004. This was shortly after his move to Shiplake College, where he lives with his wife Alison and daughter Anna, 17, who is a student there.

He has rugby memorabilia on the wall of his office, including shirts, match-day ties and programmes from the games he officiated. He also keeps in touch with friends he made during his career, including Welsh referee Nigel Owens, whom he ranks as the best in the world.

Mr Davies says: “Nigel is a comedian, a lot of people don’t know that. He’s very serious about his fitness and works out a lot but off the pitch he’s hugely funny and talks 13 to the dozen in his lovely Welsh accent.”

Owens came out as gay in 2007, one of the first men in rugby to do so.

Mr Davies says: “I didn’t know Nigel was gay and I roomed with him. I rang him up to ask why he hadn’t told us and he said it had been a personal thing. People respect him as a referee. There are some idiotsin the crowd who shout something but for every one of them there’s someone turning around and telling him to shut up.”

Mr Davies isn’t getting overexcited about the world cup because it makes him realise how much he misses being involved with the game.

“It’s a different part of my life,” he says. “I miss reffing at that level hugely so not watching rugby is a defence mechanism. Having said that, I’ll support Scotland because they need as much support as they can get! I was born in Wales but I’ve lived so much of my life in Scotland that I see myself as Scottish.”

After years patrolling the rugby pitch, Mr Davies can now more often be found strolling the college grounds with his bearded collies, Munro and Perdi.

But he says refereeing burly rugby players and overseeing hundreds of students isn’t too different.

He says: “I think you need the same skills to be a headteacher as a referee. When you’re trying to manage 16 people in a scrum you’ve got to use your man management skills.

“You see some referees in the lower echelons shouting a lot and when you’re at school you don’t respond to that. In rugby and in school you respond to having respect for the person you are talking to.”

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