Referee Cooper to join growing number of debutants in Super Rugby AU

Super Rugby - AU
by Harrison Wakeling

Plenty of rookie players have debuted in Super Rugby AU this season and referee Graham Cooper is set to join the debutant ranks with the whistle this weekend.

Cooper will make his main match official debut in Friday night's Rebels vs Brumbies clash at Leichhardt Oval and his elevation has been a long time in the making. 

Commencing his rugby journey in the U6s like most other aspiring Wallabies, Cooper's adoption of the whistle didn't come until much later.

Originally refereeing was just "a way of getting out of doing Friday afternoon private study," during his high schooling at Perth's Wesley College.

As he moved into senior rugby, floating in between grades at the Southern Lions Cooper was still yet to fully embrace life as a match official, only really taking charge of matches during gala days while he was a development officer at RugbyWA.

 

It wasn't until he was nominated by RugbyWA to attend the National U16s Championships, as an official that refereeing became something serious.

It was at that event where he met Andrew Cole and John McCarthy, the National Referee Coaches at the time who put pressure on him to pursue a career with the whistle.

Cooper continued to both play and officiate before the inevitable clash came whereby his level of officiating crossed over with his playing level. 

"If I was going to progress in my refereeing I had to stop playing, so I decided to give it a crack and hang up the boots," Cooper said.

The first year of solely refereeing was not easy for Cooper and he called Cole, at a crossroads with his future.

"I remember calling Coley [Andrew Cole] and saying I don't think I can do this mate, and he assured me that it was going to get better," he said.

Following an invitation to the Australian Schoolboys Championships and spending a year travelling to various national tournaments, including the Hottest 7s in Darwin, Cooper was elevated into the 2015 National Match Official Panel.

In WA, Cooper found opportunities through the NRC, something he felt was critical for his progression.

"It [the NRC] played a huge part, both for development coaches as well as for match officials like me," he said.

He stepped up into international rugby at the 2017 Women's Rugby World Cup, giving him a dose of a higher level once again.

Cooper wasn't initially selected to be part of the Super Rugby refereeing group, one that generally spans referees from Australia, New Zealand, Argentina, South Africa and Japan.

But when Super Rugby AU emerged out of the coronavirus shutdown, suddenly more doors opened for him.

"I wasn't selected to be in the Super Rugby setup originally in 2020" he said.

"However, the new format of Super RugbyAU has given me an opportunity which wouldn't have happened otherwise."

Rugby Australia looked in its own backyard for officials from its national team in a bid to give them more opportunities at the Super Rugby AU level.

Since news of his appointment, and a brief celebration informing his family and partner, a relatively calm Cooper just went back to business as usual.

The key to his refereeing philosophy? Ensuring he understands the teams he is about to officiate.

Each week the referees work with the respective team coaches as well as our own coaches.

"This week I've spent a lot of time talking to both Dan and Dave to see what they're trying to achieve in their games," he said.

"That then dovetails into how we facilitate that."

From here officials work with their own respective coaches, including Scott Young and Mitch Chapman to develop their own game plans, a scenario not too far removed from that which players go through to prepare for games.

Cooper also has the luxury ahead of this weekend's game on drawing on the experiences of his fellow team members, with one of Australia's leading match officials Angus Gardner running touch as Cooper takes the reigns.

When asked for the best advice he could give any young official, the answer was quite a simple one.

"Enjoy it! You need to love what you do."

"Whether it's Super Rugby or U12s, I do it because I love what I do."

 The Brumbies take on the Rebels on Friday August 7 at Leichhardt Oval, kicking off at 7:05pm AEST, LIVE on Foxtel, Foxtel Now and Kayo Sports. Buy tickets here. Buy a Kayo subscription here.