When Tyson Brough ran the line for the Canberra Raiders and Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs clash during Magic Round, his dream of making it as an NRL official was realised.
The 30-year-old has spent the past 15 years perfecting his craft and said he owed so much to so many people who had put faith in him to excel, including his parents, the late Richard 'Richie' Johnston and James 'Ackers' Ackerman.
"It was unreal... it was incredible really... just the most perfect day," Brough said.
"There was just relief running out.... 'yes, this is happening'. The atmosphere of Magic Round was something else. Normally, that round would be at ANZ Stadium with 3000 people there and the fact that it was at Suncorp Stadium with 30,000... I was like 'holy, what am I doing here?' It was amazing.
“My parents have done everything for me over the years so I said to them, that first one was for them.”
Brough, who first refereed an under 8 game in Caloundra and made his Intrust Super Cup debut in 2014, said his road to becoming NRL official #158 had been long but worth it.
"To get to NRL, I wanted to get there as a player, so that started at seven… but that switched to becoming a referee when I was 15," Brough said.
"When I realised I wasn't going to be good enough as a player, refereeing was the next best thing... close to the action, there's a role to play and you're still involved in the game."
Brough said a promise he made Johnston, who was a mentor to him, before he passed away was a driving force for him to continually strive to be better.
"Richie Johnston, who was a mentor, and someone that really got me involved in refereeing and pushed me, was a real catalyst behind me progressing," Brough said.
"We had a thing that we would get on the train in Cairns and we weren't going to get off the train until we were in Sydney, and that was the NRL... he passed away in 2017 and I said 'I won't get off the train until I'm there'."
Brough said he had experienced many highs and definitely lows during the train ride to Sydney.
“The Intrust Super Cup grand final in 2019 was pretty special… to do that with my good mate Liam (Kennedy). It's not always about grand finals, but that was a pretty proud moment, to be able to do that,” Brough said.
“There's been challenging times. Obviously when I lost Ackers (following a game in 2015), that was just something that was unimaginable on a rugby league field and when that happened, it was not just the hardest point for me in rugby league but the hardest point in my life. Just coming back from that... it was a life-changing experience. Made me look at things differently and how I go about things.
“Ever since then, he's been there. Every game I look up and let him know that ‘I won't be shit today’.
“I joked about it with one of the boys... he probably would have been at the pub or the TAB, not at my debut game. I like to think when I'm out there, he's with me, but he's more likely at the TAB.”
The emotion behind the Ackerman Cup
Brough, who admitted his friends were his harshest critics, so any flack from players or the crowd was “water off a duck’s back”, said now he had experienced an NRL game, he was hungry for more and he hoped other Queensland referees were buoyed by seeing what was possible.
“Once you get to this level, so much goes in behind the scenes,” Brough said, adding that included a tough pre-season each year, games, individual reviews, reviews by post-game assessors, group training and gym sessions.
“I think a lot of people, when they find out what actually goes into it, are pretty taken back by it. Because, you know, it's that perception that you just run around and blow penalties. But that’s not the case.
“With myself getting a crack in first grade, hopefully that opens the door for more Queenslanders to get a go as the year goes on.”
Brough will run an NRL line again this weekend, this time when the Gold Coast Titans face the Bulldogs on Saturday at 3pm.
“Hopefully I get some more opportunities… I’m running again this weekend, which is just unreal, to get another crack at it. It's addictive... I definitely recommend it,” Brough said.
“I want to consistently be there, but with Intrust Super Cup, I need to make sure when I'm out there I apply myself as good as I can because I've still got goals to achieve there. It's not like it's just me focusing on NRL, there's still plenty I want to do in Cup.”
Queensland Rugby League state match officials manager Paul Stephenson said Brough getting a crack was “huge for our squad”.
“Tyson has been a senior member of our group for a number of years now. He did the 2019 grand final and the 2019 national final. I think he was really ready to go,” Stephenson said.
“Every time we get an official get an opportunity like Tyson got on the weekend, I think it gives a glimmer of hope to our younger members that there's a light at the end of the tunnel... an opportunity is there one day if they work hard.
"Tyson's definitely a leader amongst our group. He's an athlete as well. I think he does everything outside of his games really well and I think that's a really good lesson, a really good example for our younger group. He works really hard on his reviews, he works really hard on his fitness. He is a leader as far as coaching younger match officials as well.
“The fact that Tyson got an opportunity demonstrates the quality that we've got here in Queensland... there's other guys we've got here who are at that level, who are banging on the door. I think the fact that Tyson's there and done a good job should really mean other guys in our group feel good about where they sit from an ability point of view.
"It's exciting, because there's so limited opportunities. I think if we look at our program as making sure that each official is officiating at the highest level they can in our competitions, and we're working really hard individually with people, then those opportunities will come. Even though they are few and far between, it's nice it was an opportunity for a Queensland official as opposed to a New South Wales official.”
Brough said as a leader within the group, he was honoured to lead by example.
“As the years go on you become more experienced on-field, but you also become more experienced off-field… being a leader is a role I've tried to undertake,” Brough said.
“I just try and help out where I can with the younger officials because I remember what it was like when I was coming through. At times it can be a little bit daunting or off-putting with the senior referees, so I just try and change that by being more approachable.
“The pathway in Queensland is definitely here. Junior reps through to Colts, from Colts through to Intrust Super Cup. Obviously the pathway has been a little bit halted now… going back to single ref, makes it a little harder for guys to get a crack. This year, more people are getting opportunities, which is good to see.
“I obviously thank Stepho and Kevie (Shane Hayne) for the opportunity. They have been pushing the NRL and pushing us Queenslanders, which is unreal. I have no doubt Nick Pelgrave will be there at some stage.
“Pelly was standby for my debut game. To have him there... we've both been through a lot on and off the field. We've shared that with each other. For him to be there, and have a photo in the sheds, was pretty cool. Hopefully I can be there celebrating him getting a debut in the coming weeks.”
Brough said when he first made his Cup debut, his aim was getting to the stage he did not have to open the appointments and wonder if his name was going to be there, but knew. Same goes now with the NRL.
“I feel like I'm off the train… I'm in Sydney hypothetically speaking…. I've still got a long walk. So I've gotten off at the station, but I've still got to get my luggage and I've got a long walk. I'm off the train but I've still got to walk a fair way,” Brough said.
Watch this space.