Rugby: Referee Ben O'Keeffe proud of public response after initial 'unprecedented' Super Rugby Pacific backlash

Kiwi rugby referee Ben O'Keeffe says he's proud of the public's response, after initially receiving "unprecedented" backlash for his performance in the Super Rugby Pacific final.

O'Keeffe presided over the Chiefs' defeat to the Crusaders at Hamilton's FMG Stadium, and was subject to loud boos throughout the contest and afterwards, while receiving his medal.

The abuse didn't stop there, with death threats on his social media and more than 200 comments taking aim at the referee.

While the initial response was very disappointing, he reveals his appreciation for his colleges, coaches, players, and fans for expressing their support for him in the following days, which he believes far outweighs the negativity.

One in particular was Clayton McMillan, with O'Keeffe previously telling SENZ radio of the phone call he received from the Chiefs coach to check on his well-being.

Since then, the public response has mostly been positive and, as he told AM Show host and brother Michael O'Keeffe, has started a much-needed conversation.

"I was pretty crazy," he told AM. "It was unprecedented in terms of games that you do in New Zealand.

"Overseas, you get messages after games, you get booed when you walk back through the tunnel and things like that, but after that, it was a lot and it was difficult in terms of the amount. It was a big game, a big final, obviously people were passionate, but there was a line that was crossed.

"It was a difficult one to deal with, but in the aftermath, I felt a bit of responsibility to share that with people, to let people know.

"We were able to get a lot of positive feedback afterwards, which I think changed the game, and a lot of positive feedback from referees, who said, 'Thank you for sticking up for us'.

"It just showed how rugby is such a great game - everyone quickly came out [in support]. We had players and coaches from New Zealand and globally.

"It was amazing how far it reached, so it was good to see that behind the criticism that came from a few individuals, the majority supported referees and see what we do for the game."

Ben O'Keeffe in action during the Super Rugby Pacific final.
Ben O'Keeffe in action during the Super Rugby Pacific final. Photo credit: Getty Images

During a decade on the whistle, O'Keeffe has seen the best and the worst of what being a top referee has to offer.

He admits it's not always so easy to get over mistakes and cope with the subsequent abuse, but he has developed structures to help him better prepare.

"It's just over time, you deal with it. There are a few trusted people that I rely on - coaches, friends and family - and I rely on that for their opinion.

"Obviously, I do a review as well to see where I went well and didn't go well, and then you just have to put the other stuff to the side.

"We're all humans and it takes a while to be able to do that, and I've been doing it for 10 years now.  It doesn't get easier, but you do get better at managing it."