Obituary: Colin High, rugby referee/official

Rugby referee played crucial role in developing the profession. Picture: Contributed
Rugby referee played crucial role in developing the profession. Picture: Contributed
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Born 24 June 1941 in Kendal. Died 13 April 2016 in Barrow-In-Furness

Colin High made a major contribution to the development of rugby refereeing particularly once the game became professional in the mid 1990’s through his appointment as the R.F.U.’S first National Referees Manager in 1997 and thereafter helping to create and manage their Elite Referees Unit between 2001 and 2008.

In these roles,he played a crucial role in pioneering professional refereeing. Scottish Rugby then appointed him as part time Elite Referee Coach,a post in which he continued till recently and in which he also played an important part in referee development here. An international referee himself who officiated at six Tests,in 2010 the International Rugby Board,forerunner of World Rugby,presented him with the Referee Award for Distinguished Service to the sport, citing his contribution as ‘nothing short of exceptional.’He in turn, with characteristic modesty, responded by saying “the biggest kick you get out of it is seeing people you like to think you’ve helped,improve .”

After he refereed the first Test in 1990 in Dunedin between the All Blacks and Scotland,Scottish coach Ian McGeechan congratulated him,stating “that’s the best refereeing performance I’ve ever seen”. He had been under considerable pressure in the build up as the New Zealand media were vocal in their scepticism about him but his performance won them over. On another occasion,after refereeing the All Blacks in a tour fixture in England,they described him as ‘the outstanding referee in the Northern Hemisphere.’

As well as refereeing internationally he acted as referees’ assessor, both these duties taking him all over the world, to Japan,Argentina[the first British referee to go there after the Falklands War,Namibia,Japan,Italy,Georgia,France and the USHe also helped with the development of referees in Russia,Romania,Uruguay and Morocco. His commitment to the game was total and in the words of a former colleague,he ‘ate,slept and breathed rugby.’

He played rugby league for his school,Barrow Technical,captaining the team before going on to play the union code for Vickers Sports Club rugby team,which later became the Hawcoat Park club. By season 1959/60,he had won his Colours for 100 first team appearances and he continued playing with distinction throughout the ‘60’s,captaining the team between 1964 and ’69. He played at wing forward and according to teammate Jack Charnley, ‘was a very determined player,no quarter given and none expected,a good leader.’Once stopped playing, he took up refereeing in the Furness area in 1970 in order to maintain involvement in the sport. He was also fixture secretary for Hawcoat and wrote a weekly rugby column for his local newspaper.

His aptitude with the whistle was soon apparent and to progress his career, in 1972 he joined the Manchester Referees’ Society exposing him to higher level fixtures including Premier League games. After that he graduated to become an R.F.U.

Panel referee before joining the International Panel,his first appointment being as touch judge in the 1987 fixture between Scotland and Ireland at Murrayfield. Later that year he officiated at the France v Wales game and continued refereeing at international level till 1991. He was known as ‘a players’ referee’,reacting in measured fashion to situations as they unfolded rather than a robotic application of the law book.

Former Scottish professional referee,Andy Macpherson,who was coached by Colin, commented that ‘for Colin,accuracy and honesty were the essential qualities of a successful referee.

He was always calm under pressure and was not influenced by the crowd. I learned a lot from him. Off the pitch,he was a great bloke,a very amusing raconteur with a fund of stories.’

Born an only child in Kendal he was brought up in Barrow-in-Furness where he lived all his life,proud of his roots. Family circumstances meant his grandparents were largely responsible for his upbringing,his mother resettling in Renfrew following remarriage. After leaving school,he began working in 1958 at the Vickers Shipyard, later BAE, as a fitter/turner before promotions led to his becoming Planning Manager in the armaments drawing office. After 36 years he was made redundant in 1994 and then undertook some referee assessment work till his full time appointment by the RFU.

In 1963 he married Cora, also from Barrow, with whom he enjoyed almost 53 years of happy marriage,raising two of a family. Cora was a great support to him in his refereeing, frequently accompanying him to matches. Outwith family life and rugby,Colin had a number of interests.

He loved his garden and was an enthusiastic angler. A keen environmentalist,he was secretary of the River Duddon Association in the Lake District,reporting to agencies on water purity levels,planting trees and clearing debris from waterways. Cora and he enjoyed hill walking trips to Scotland,particularly to Torridon and Glencoe, and together climbed 200 Munros. Colin was a keep fit enthusiast, cycling and swimming regularly. He was also very sociable and upheld rugby’s tradition of enjoying a few beers in the bar after games.

Although he achieved much in rugby,he remained down to earth and modest,very attached to the sport’s grassroots. Former referee colleague David Hudson,commented,”Colin was absolutely adored wherever he went and will be hugely missed.”He is survived by Cora,daughter Julia,son Stephen and granddaughter Freya.