Veteran ref Banks still calls the tune in Ulster rugby
Brian Banks has given almost 60 years of service to rugby — 27 as a player and 32 as a referee. At 70, he is one of the oldest referees in the country.
Yet despite having clocked up threescore years and 10 he recently handled three games in the space of a week.
Having overseen Armagh v Cavan U17s at the Palace Grounds on Saturday, October 15, the following Wednesday night saw him back on duty at Rafeenan where the over-35s of Monaghan and Clogher Valley met. Last Saturday he was the man in the middle for Ophir II v Ballymoney II.
But the former town planner points out that there are others of similar vintage. “I’m not alone,” he stresses. “Harold Jacobs is older than me by about six months and Sid Rowe is younger by a similar period.”
Brian began playing as an 11-year-old at RBAI. On leaving school he played for CIYMS until his job took him to live and work Portadown whereupon he joined the Chambers Park club.
At the age of 38, he retired from playing and began refereeing.
“I had to attend a course and I passed that, after which I was on my own,” is his explanation of the process.
He is in better shape than most men half his age.
“If I’m only refereeing on Saturday I train twice a week. When I’m refereeing on Wednesday and Saturday, I train once,” he explains.
His training entails 15 minutes of jogging and a similar period of sprinting. But although he is in great nick, he acknowledges the limitations imposed by the march of time.
“Realistically I can’t do higher-level games any more, physically I’m just not up to that. So as it’s not too fast, which means I’m comfortable with it, these days I prefer youth rugby, Under 17s in particular. That level just seems to suits me,” he says.
He is also the referees’ representative on the Ulster Branch Youth Committee, further underlining his commitment to that age-group.
Rugby has moved on and changed in the 59 years during which he has been involved.
“When I started refereeing you didn’t tell players what to do, for example,” he says. “You didn’t warn somebody that he was offside; if he was offside you penalised him.
“You didn’t tell them to get back or release; you didn’t tell them anything. When I started, had I done anything like that on a pitch the assessor would have crucified me.
“Now when I go out I talk, talk, talk the whole game. One of the reasons I like doing under-age rugby is that I’m there not only as a referee but to coach those kids, too.
“If I blow the whistle and stop the game I explain to them why. Before the game I tell them that if they don’t understand something I’m doing, ask me during a break and I’ll explain.
“I’m not there to catch people out; I see my role being to advise and help the game flow. Players by and large respond to that.
“You can improve the game immensely just by good communication.”
It’s all part of rugby’s determination to improve itself, as is the regularity of law amendments.
“Every year there are changes and you simply have to adapt to those,” he reasons.
“Looking back the two which have been particularly important are not being allowed to tackle round the head and the metre gap in the line-out.
“If you see a recording of a game from 20 years ago, head-high tackles — which were dangerous — were common. And in the line-out the two packs were standing right beside each other which was a recipe for disaster,” he says. “So those two changes have helped a lot.”
That said, he does not feel it is easier to referee modern-day rugby. “The law that came in about a year ago whereby the tackler has to release the tackled player can be a very difficult one in a dynamic situation where everything is happening at speed,” he says.
“On the pitch a referee is making decisions every 10-15 seconds and in some of these big matches there can be an awful lot riding on them.”
Even so he has no hesitation in encouraging others to take up the whistle.
“I enjoy it immensely otherwise I wouldn’t be doing it. I’m still as enthusiastic as when I started, so I’d encourage people to referee,” he says.
“You can do what I did and take it up after playing. There is room for you and you’ll be made very welcome.
“But if you want to become a top referee the reality of the situation now is that you’ve really got to start when you’re 21, 22, not 38. That’s the way the progression is now with the IRFU.”