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'We want to see as many match officials as we can move into the NRL space'

The game of rugby league - more specifically, the success of the game of rugby league - is reliant on so many people. 

Players, match officials, volunteers, fans... every single one helps make 'the greatest game of all' thrive. 

Three match officials doing their part to ensure the success of the game in Queensland are Nick Pelgrave, Tyson Brough and Sam Swift. 

Between them, they have refereed 216 Intrust Super Cup games - Pelgrave, 108; Brough, 107; and Swift, one. And their passion for the game is unwavering. 

Queensland Rugby League statewide competitions manager Dave Maiden said the statewide competitions, including Cup, were "transitional and aspirational" competitions that provided the opportunities for all participants - players, coaches, trainers, match officials and now commentators - to progress.

"It's important we devote as much time as we do to players and coaches to improving their chances of success by providing them with the framework, education and support that is necessary to allow them to shine," Maiden said.

"We want to see as many match officials as we can move into the NRL space and more importantly, we want them to feel confident and supported in the vital role they play in portraying our product in the best possible light."

The latest to make the jump was Wyatt Raymond, who was elevated to a full-time NRL position earlier this year.

Nick Pelgrave

Pelgrave, entering his twelfth season with the High Performance Unit, said he was excited to be back after the one-year hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and looked forward to running out when Sunshine Coast play Northern Pride on Saturday. 

"We're back," Pelgrave said. 

"I'm probably in the best physical condition I've been in, in many years.

"I credit that to having different training methods while we were away from the group. Being able to ride more and things like that. I found the new training methods to be exciting and it was a good change. It's allowed me to come back in pretty good nick.

"You can't really say too much about pre-season because it's just hard. You just get accustomed to that alloy taste through your lungs because it's pushing yourself to a spot that you only really get to in pre-season, when you're doing all the work so that you're the best prepared for when you go out there come Round 1.

"It's always enjoyable but it's enjoyable when it's over as well."

Pelgrave, a Wavell State High School product, said with the new rules, having "a really significant cardio base with the continuity and the increase of ball in play" was only going to be a benefit.

"Got to remember more with more new rules, but if you've got the fitness component under wraps, you're more likely to make better decisions under fatigue," Pelgrave said.  

Pelgrave officiating. Photo: QRL
Pelgrave officiating. Photo: QRL

The 29-year-old, who - "long time coming" - married partner Jordy in October, said he remained working in the game during 2020 after Cup was cancelled. 

"I still kept my finger in the pie, in a sense, where I contributed in a coaching sense... when BRL and the local A Grade competitions announced that they were going to continue, I felt that my best contribution to the officiating space would be through coaching and mentoring," Pelgrave said. 

"Because we were stood down for a period of time, I spent some time working with a friend of mine as a landscaper and found other things to do... played the harmonica. I'm always going to find ways to keep myself busy. Irrespective of what's going on in the world, I think I'm pretty good at pivoting and finding things to do to stay busy."

Pelgrave said despite enjoying other aspects of his life during 2020, he was passionate about officiating and could not wait to be back out there.

The highlight for him so far in his career, he said, was refereeing with Brough, who he has been friends with since the age of 14, at the end of 2019 when Townsville Blackhawks played Wynnum Manly Seagulls in the preliminary final. 

"2019 finished on a really good note.... Tyson Brough and I actually refereed for the first time together... we'd never been appointed in a two-ref model, and as it will now probably be for a long time, we'll never get that opportunity again," Pelgrave said. 

"Reflecting on that is pretty exciting because Tyson and I have had a really long-standing relationship. We've been mates for a long time, played a lot of touch together. Obviously Tyson went on to officiate in the grand final. That game is a highlight for me because it was the last game I was involved in, in that assist role. It was really good."

Pelgrave added he was "always aspirational". 

"I'd love to be involved in first grade in some capacity... whether that's on the line or in the centre one day down the line, it's still an aspiration of mine," Pelgrave said.

"I've taken on more of a leadership role [with the High Performance Unit]. It's funny that when you get everything sorted off the field, it provides so much clarity and I feel as though I can help a lot of the other guys more, so now than ever before." 

Tyson Brough

Brough, based at the Sunshine Coast, also cannot wait to be back out in the middle. 

The 30-year-old will officiate Brisbane Tigers versus Norths Devils at Totally Workwear Stadium on Saturday. 

"When the season first got cancelled last year, it was hard to cop," Brough said.

"But I played a fair bit of touch and TRL, which was good. And, showing my age here, but it was all of my mates' 30th's this year, so to actually be able to have weekends and go to them... and not having to worry about being in Cairns or Townsville, or wherever, was actually pretty good.

"It was a different sort of year, but enjoyable having weekends in the middle of June."

Brough said his aim for the year was "to go from where I left off in 2019". 

"My goal at the start of 2019 was the Intrust Super Cup grand final... the national final and the other stuff isn't what you train for.... the Intrust Super Cup grand final was the goal, so to do that, and then the national final and world 9s was also something that was pretty good to be able to do," Brough said.

Brough officiating. Photo: QRL
Brough officiating. Photo: QRL

"This year I just want to be consistent, really, and see what happens towards the back end of the year.... I just want to focus on nailing it week in, week out.

"I'd like to get a crack at the NRL at some stage. That's what I've been doing this for so I don't have an end game... I just want to be given a chance. I just want to see if I'm good enough."

Brough said officiating the Wynnum Manly Seagulls versus Brisbane Broncos pre-season trial was "really good... I really enjoyed it". 

"It was quick. It was funny, I was talking to one of the players and we were both saying.... game day... we'd forgotten what we had to do," Brough said.

"Both sides came out and ripped and teared. I was so excited to get back. I was talking to (the Intrust Super Cup's most capped player) Phil Dennis about it the night after. He's been around forever and he said 'having that time off, makes you hungry again'. It gives you that extra kick to go again."

Brough, who works for the NRL and does educational talks at schools with Jack Reed, said pre-season had involved "a lot of running", which had been tough but extremely beneficial. 

"With the new rules, the six-again and continuous footy, we've done a lot of repetitive efforts," Brough said.

"It's been tough, which is what you want and what pre-season is about, but a lot of repetitiveness. Continuing to keep going, because the stoppages in play aren't going to be there this year. The new rules will definitely make the game quicker.

"2021... we're here." 

Sam Swift

Swift, entering his fourth year as a referee, made his Cup debut in Round 1 of the 2020 season and he cannot wait to get back out there. 

"I debuted in Mackay, when Norths played Mackay," Swift said.

"It was a peak. Bittersweet, but good to get the Cup debut out of the way [before the competition was cancelled] and have something to build towards for 2021.

"I felt really good. It was everything I thought and more as a high standard of footy."

The 24-year-old, based at the Gold Coast, said he kept his "finger in the pie" during 2020. 

Swift. Photo: QRL
Swift. Photo: QRL

"I refereed some local A Grade, which was good, and spent some time outside of footy, doing things I don't get to do," Swift, who played for Burleigh Bears prior to making the switch to officiating, said.

"Whilst it was a pretty adverse year, it was good to have some time off from the high performance side. Freshen up and get ready for a big 2021.

"Goals for 2021, for me, are to referee in the middle in a single ref game in Intrust Super Cup and to stay consistent. Obviously I would love to referee in the NRL, like everyone in the squad, but I'd love to forge out a good career in Cup and see what happens."

Swift said pre-season had been tough, working with strength and conditioning coach John Mitchell, but made better by the "good group" in the High Performance Unit. 

"It has been tough but enjoyable," Swift said.

"I love the comradery, the mateship around it. Rugby league is a physical, high-contact sport. It's very unique.. the mateship you build from it, lasts a lifetime. I like seeing my mates every weekend, even if they are giving me a spray. 

"The new rules will make the game very fast. But just like anything new, you just have to adapt."

Swift said outside of rugby league, he was in the latter stages of finishing his Masters of Teaching, and was working within the Keebra Park football program. 

"There's lots of young talent there. I went to Palm Beach... I've been called a turncoat already, but it's really good to be around rugby league every day in a high quality football program," Swift said.

"Coaching is something I have a passion for as well... whether it's referee coaching or coaching rugby league, it's really good to be in an environment where there's lots of good, young talent."

Acknowledgement of Country

Queensland Rugby League respects and honours the Traditional Custodians of the land and pay our respects to their Elders past, present and future. We acknowledge the stories, traditions and living cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on the lands we meet, gather and play on.

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