The late, great Richie Johnston was a larger than life character who shaped the lives of hundreds of referees who he mentored.
The former QRL referees’ development manager and state league coach was instrumental in the development of Queensland’s leading referees for more than 25 years as well as guiding young match officials from the Sunshine Coast / Gympie Referees Association.
His success was underpinned by one primary philosophy - "I may not make you a better referee, but I will make you a better person."
Since his passing in 2017, the Johnston family, in partnership with the Sunshine Coast / Gympie Rugby League Referees Association have honoured Richie through a female officiating scholarship for members in the Sunshine Coast area who epitomise this simple but meaningful catchphrase.
With the accolade extending to statewide nominees in 2021, Richie's daughter, Sally Lawrence (nee Johnston) felt contributing to a scholarship for female officials was the most fitting way to honour her late father given his immense support for women in support.
"Being a daughter of dad and him having two daughters – Amanda and I, he had us involved in rugby league at a very young age being sand girls and also doing the scoreboard. Dad was a huge advocate for women in sport," Lawrence said.
"The first person he mentored was Marilyn McKenna. She was one of the first female referees who had a game at Lang Park and dad mentored her through the Maryborough association.
"With his advocacy for women in sport, we thought it would be really fitting to since he was gone was to have some platform and something that could encourage women to be in that officiating space and continue his legacy in that way."
Three Queensland referees that he had a special bond with by taking under his wing and treating them like his own kids were Tyson Brough, Peter Gough and Belinda Sharpe (nee Sleeman) - all now forging a career as an NRL match official; but most importantly, continuing to be successful role models off the field.
"Dad was that significant other for them. That Robin Williams from Dead Poet Society or Whoopi Goldberg from Sister Act," Lawrence said.
"He was very much about being interested in people’s lives – not only in football – but in a holistic sense because he knew if he was to work with them specifically to get them to that level with football, he needed to support them as a whole person.
"He took interest in those he could see had great potential and he mentored them in life a well as football and you know, he’d call a spade a spade and his truth and honesty I think is what his mentees valued.
"He would call them out and wouldn’t allow them to take their foot off the pedal.
"He gave them a goal and created visuals and metaphors to keep them focused. He also believed in them and saw their potential and was supportive.
"We can all reflect on significant others we’ve had in our lives – usually teachers or somebody at the Scout Den. Somebody who has believed in us even when we may not have believed ourselves.
"I think that’s what the power of dad is that he believed in that potential he could see and he backed it 100 per cent."
I may not make you a better referee, but I will make you a better person.Richie Johnston
In April 2017 when Johnston passed, Sharpe described her former mentor as the most influential person in not only her refereeing career, but in her life in general.
With Johnston's guidance, she strived to become the first female referee in the NRL; a feat she achieved on July 18, 2019 at Suncorp Stadium and this week, will officiate her 50th Intrust Super Cup game at Totally Workwear Stadium.
Sharpe also continues to give back off the field in conjunction with her full-time role as an NRL referee - so much so that her continued persistence to continue bettering herself has seen her honoured with sharing the naming rights of the scholarship with her late coach.
"Underpinning the scholarship is the person who applies for it must be actively giving back to the association which they’re apart of," Lawrence said.
"It’s recognising that you can’t be successful on your own and that it’s what you put into your grassroots association makes you a better person so that’s one aspect of that scholarship.
"The other aspect is that not everyone goes to uni but the investment is for someone who is looking to make themselves a better person through whatever study course they pursue whether that is TAFE or university or an apprenticeship or traineeship.
"They have to be showing they are looking to better themselves in their career because as dad always said, it won’t be forever that you have this career in footy... you have to have something to fall back on.
"It’s what they give back to in their local association and their investment in themselves with further study and further improvement and these two factors are crucial in the criteria for somebody who is wanting to apply for the scholarship."
The successful applicant will receive $2000 to go towards their tertiary study ($1000 contribution from the Johnston family and $1000 contribution from SCGRLRA).
Belinda Sharpe-Richie Johnston female officiating scholarship criteria
- Can't have received the scholarship previously
- Must have been an active referee for two (2) years refereeing under 12+
- No disciplinary issues in the past 12 months
- Must be studying a minimum of an undergraduate degree at university (either on campus or externally or have commenced a registered apprenticeship/traineeship and have obtained employment in that field
- Applicants must be seen to be a contributing member of the association
Nominations close Wednesday, June 16