Oli Kellett always dreamt of reaching 100 games in the Dewar Shield - but never with a whistle in hand.
Playing rugby in the UK since the age of six, his family immigrated to Australia when he started High School. When arriving in his new country, his father picked out a handful of rugby clubs, drew a circle around one of them and said, ‘We can live in this circle.’
That club was Box Hill Rugby Club.
Despite playing all through juniors and a season of colts, a senior rugby playing career for the English expat was over before it even began.
Having gained a serious shoulder injury and being forced to sit out on the sidelines, he volunteered to join the minimum compulsory number of club members taking part in the inaugural Green Shirt Program in 2009.
“I thought I’ll go down and tick a box for the club,” Kellet said.
“I went down on the Sunday, and on the Tuesday I got an email saying I had been appointed to my first game.”
“I’d never thought about refereeing before; I was only there because I had to be. But I thought it might be a good way to keep fit whilst rehabbing my shoulder.”
“I went out and refereed my first game of under 12s and had a lot of fun. Then I just stuck with it.”
“The rest is history.”
12 years later, Kellett has risen the refereeing ranks in Victoria; from Green Shirt to claiming the mantle as the #1 referee in Victoria.
So far, his refereeing career has seen him officiate the Dewar Shield Grand Final for the last five seasons as well as the historic Rebels A v Japan Wolfpack match at AAMI Park in 2019.
After being made to wait through all of 2020 (and parts of 2021), he will now clock up the milestone of 100 Dewar Shield matches this Saturday in the Dewar Shield Match of the Round between Harlequins and Endeavour Hills at Holmesglen Reserve- in front of his wife and two sons.
“It’s a huge achievement,” Kellett said.
“I’m exceptionally proud to have been given the opportunity to be involved in the Dewar Shield – because I wasn’t going to get there as a player.”
“To be around for 100 games is very special.”
“It’s something I’ve had my eye on for a couple of years now after losing the 2020 season. I was pretty close at the end of 2019. I’m exceptionally proud and it’s a huge honour to be selected for 100 first-grade games.”
“We get maybe 10-12 games a year if you’re lucky enough to be involved with finals. It takes a pretty long time to get to 100... I’ve been refereeing Dewar Shield for eight years. It’s a very special milestone.”
As a former player and now referee, Kellett knows better than most the challenges the game presents once you run out onto the pitch.
In eight years of refereeing Victoria’s premier rugby competition, he believes it never gets any easier.
“The elephant in the room is the number of helpers on the sideline,” Kellett said.
“Each game poses a different set of challenges, some of which are really easy to manage in terms of ‘that clearly isn’t the laws of the game so you can’t do that.’”
“While some are the man management challenges, which is having to have a quick chat to a player and knowing how to approach them in a way that your message isn’t going to come across as hanging it on them for the wrong thing…basically authoritarian.”
“At the end of the day, we don’t want to be the centre of attention. We want to let the players showcase their skills.”
“Sometimes the challenge is knowing when to have to step in and inevitably become the centre of attention for that moment, and then drift back out and let the players take the stage again.”
Dealing with pressure and criticism comes with the territory of being a referee. It’s a skill that the experienced Kellett has confessed to have worked on over the journey.
But according to Kellett, the harshest critics of referees are often themselves.
“While it might sound weird, most of the pressure comes from within,” he said.
“I have a couple of mental strategies that I do throughout the game to stay in the moment and not worry about the decision I may have gotten wrong two minutes ago.”
“We are all trying to achieve the perfect game, referees and players, and that’s the beauty of our game.”
“No one’s ever going to have a perfect game, but that doesn’t stop you from trying.”
Pressure, high stakes and scrutiny.
But what keeps Kellett fronting up week after week?
“The relationships you build off the field is the most rewarding part,” he said.
“The rugby community in Melbourne is fairly small so going to the clubs and seeing the same faces year in and year out is always nice.”
“I wouldn’t have stuck with refereeing for as long as I have if the VRRA wasn’t such a supportive and encouraging group of people. I’ve made so many friends along the way who may have moved away from refereeing, but we are still friends and keep in touch.”
“Every referee around Victoria and Australia, we are the extra team in the competition no matter what comp we are in.”
“We are like-minded people who understand the pressure and expectation on you, so we can always relate to what another referee is going through.”
“That comradery is huge amongst the referee fraternity.”
Kellett reached the pinnacle of Victorian referees after receiving the Dewar Shield Referee of the Year Award at the 2019 Rugby Victoria Awards. He has now joined the illustrious company of Darren O'Brian, Des Bleakley, Paul McKay and Matt Hall as centurions.
Now embracing the role of a leader amongst his cohort, he is dedicated to mentoring Victoria’s next generation of referees.
“The guys and girls who do first-grade week in and week out, we want to lead by example in how we approach the game,” he said.
“We always do the basics - our fitness, reviews, driving the improvement amongst ourselves, and encouraging the wider VRRA to help mentor younger referees.”
“Covid has been tough on everybody, but we still made sure to get together on zoom once a month as a wider association. Whether it was a trivia night or any education we could do to keep our minds sharp around rugby.”
“It’s a very strong place to where it was 15-20 years ago.”
Starting out as a teenager dreaming of playing 100 Dewar Shield matches, Kellett ultimately turned a setback into an opportunity on the other side of the whistle.
And in reflection, he has only one piece of advice for himself or anyone taking up refereeing.
“It’s a pretty thankless task if you’re not having fun. Treat every game with the respect it deserves and, most importantly, enjoy it.”
“I like to think I’ve got a few more years left in the legs to keep running around. It all depends on if my two boys take up rugby, then maybe I’ll have to pivot into a player/coach direction.”
“I’d like to still be involved for many years to come.”
Learn more about becoming a referee here