26 Feb 2016

Hong Kong Rugby Union (HKRU) senior referee Tim Baker has been appointed to officiate tonight’s French Pro D2 league, (one rung beneath the premier Top 14 league), game between Narbonne and US Montauban.Baker has been in Marcoussis, south of Paris, where the French Rugby National Rugby Center is located, as part of a referee exchange programme organized by HKRU National Referee Development Manager Hugh Watkins.

“The programme came about due to me knowing the French referee manager, Joel Dume, very well and we decided to set up an exchange between our two Unions,” said Watkins. “As this is the first exchange between our Unions, I felt it was only proper to choose our top referee, Tim. This will give Tim added experience going into the World Rugby U20 Trophy in Zimbabwe and the Asia Rugby Championship, both of which are massive tournaments for him,” Watkins said.

The appointment comes on the back of Baker’s strong performance refereeing the Natixis Rugby Cup between Top 14 side Racing 92 and Super Rugby champions Highlanders, a match that Baker acknowledged at the time was the biggest game he had refereed to that point in his career.

For Baker, the exchange and his appointment marks another step forward in his development as an international referee, and presents another opportunity to increase his exposure in the game.

“This exchange has massively helped my development. French Rugby is completely different to what I have experienced before and one of the major developments for me is in dealing with players with a limited understanding of English. That’s when your whistle and signaling needs to be spot on so everyone can understand what you are doing on the pitch.”

Baker has already refereed a Federal 1 (third division) match as part of the programme. Based on his solid performance, he was tipped to referee the Pro D2 match, an unexpected, but welcome, opportunity.

Narbonne and US Montauban are eighth and ninth on the table after 20 league rounds. At the end of the season the top Pro D2 side is automatically promoted to the Top 14. The remaining four teams (second through fifth overall) enter a play-off for the second promotion spot, making every match vital.

Baker is looking forward to the tie saying, “Both teams are aiming for promotion next season so this match will be another step up for me. They are both fully professional teams and the skill, size of the players and speed of the game will all be a step up. Of course, for me it has to be just another game and nothing will change in terms of how I prepare for and referee on the day.”

With the game televised across the continent on Eurosport Baker has another chance to increase his international exposure:

“The match will be televised and you never know who is watching at the end of the day, so it’s another opportunity for me personally continuing on from the Natixis Cup. Another chance to get my name out there and gain more experience refereeing in a foreign country and to demonstrate that I can perform at a high level and under pressure,” adds Baker, who is eyeing selection for other international competitions.

“This experience will put me on the right track heading into the Grand Championships in Hong Kong and then on to the World Rugby U20 Trophy, which is my ultimate performance goal for the year,” added the New Zealander.

But Baker also notes that the programme is a step in the right direction for all Hong Kong referees: “This is down to Hugh’s hard work and dedication to get our referees recognised around the world. Appointments like this are really important for our exposure and the exchange is a huge step in the right direction for Hong Kong rugby.”

Watkins agrees that initiatives like this are vital for increasing the profile of local referees saying, “This could lead to more opportunities for us and there is no reason why we couldn't offer this type of opportunity to our lower and junior academy referees in future,” said Watkins.

As part of the exchange, the French Union will send a referee to Hong Kong to officiate at the GFI Hong Kong Tens tournament and assistant referee at the Cathay Pacific/HSBC Hong Kong Sevens. Watkins also plans to continue and expand the programme where possible.

“We look forward to this becoming a regular programme with other high performance rugby nations. Scotland have agreed to be part of our elite panel exchange and will send a referee over for this year’s Tens and Sevens while we are planning for our refs to visit Scotland in September,” Watkins said, adding that the referee for the Scotland exchange will be named from the Hong Kong elite referees panel soon.