Fishtown native refs the Rugby World Cup Sevens.
By Melissa Komar
Refereeing rugby at the international level means Mike O’Brien has made calls on the pitch from Africa to Asia, but his most prominent appearance happened on American soil.
In its seventh edition, the Rugby World Cup Sevens 2018 took place in San Francisco from July 20 to 22, the first time it has been held in the United States.
O’Brien was the fourth USA Rugby referee in history selected for a Rugby World Cup event.
“It’s big because it’s something we’ve been working toward in the United States to become a bigger player in the international scene,” he said. “To be able to host such a huge event on American soil was incredible.”
But, before O’Brien, 31, was reffing elite, international athletes, he was a kid from the neighborhood.
Growing up in Fishtown, O’Brien played soccer and baseball for one of Port Richmond’s athletic associations.
At Northeast Catholic, O’Brien took to the water.
“In high school, I was a rower. North had rugby, but I never played it because I was busy rowing. I just knew it existed,” he said. “With rowing, all you had to do was grab on and go.”
After graduating, O’Brien moved to Florida to attend the University of Miami, where he continued to row for a club team.
The club folded due to lack of funding and O’Brien looked to get involved with another sport.
While at an Irish-themed pub, he caught a glimpse of a rugby game on TV and was hooked.
“They had a rugby game on and it looked confusing and a little bit crazy, and so I joined my junior year of college the club rugby team at the University of Miami and started playing from there,” he said.
After playing two years of rugby union at college — one of two codes of the sport, the other being rugby league — O’Brien moved back to Philly and played for the Schuylkill River Exiles club team before moving to Maryland to complete graduate studies at the University of Maryland.
After a stint with a small club team, O’Brien made the switch from player to referee after about six years on the pitch.
“I really liked the game and I really wanted to see a high level of it that, as a player, I wasn’t able to. I was never a very good player,” said O’Brien, laughing. “They say those who can’t play or coach, generally referee. So, I wound up being a referee and being able to see that high level of the game.”
In addition to seeing a high level of the game, O’Brien got the opportunity to see different places around the world.
While the trade-off from player to referee had benefits, it wasn’t an easy one.
“The game of rugby is really fun to play. It’s a nice balance of technical skill, and you also get to assert physical dominance,” he said. “So, it was tough to get away from that to just running around and blowing a whistle. It took a good number of years to switch over to the fact I was more happy refereeing than playing.”
Reffing at the international level changed his mind.
“During some of the international matches, you have these really big boys and you’re two feet away from a crunching tackle, and you’re like, ‘Thank God I’m not that guy. I am OK being next to it and being subtly involved,’ ” said O’Brien, jokingly.
Dubai, Cape Town in South Africa, Vancouver, Hong Kong, Singapore, Bermuda, and Trinidad round out places O’Brien has reffed matches, but none come close to his most recent experience.
“To walk out there in front of 40,000 people at some points onto this rugby field that has been smushed onto where baseball is played and people are jeering and I have friends and family there, it was basically a capstone to the international career I’ve been able to have over the past two years,” O’Brien said. “It’s hard to describe. It’s emotional and it’s a moment I’m extremely proud of.”
Physically, fitness was key for preparing for the Rugby World Cup, and all the other matches.
“It’s a lot of running and a lot of gym time,” O’Brien said. “We have to keep up with the players. They’re all extremely fast. We tend to run more than some of the players, but we don’t have to worry about getting tackled or getting up off the ground. For referees, it’s about being able to keep going and keep our heads on our shoulders and make really tough decisions under pressure and being a good-degree exhausted. Luckily, it’s only 14 minutes long.”
While the thrill of reffing the Rugby World Cup Sevens is an experience that won’t soon be forgotten, O’Brien is taking a break from the sport.
And, to get back into the swing of his day job.
Each international trip meant a week away from work, time away O’Brien hasn’t taken for granted.
“My job has been very nice to me in the fact they’ve let me take off what amounted to seven weeks off from work for rugby,” he said.
O’Brien currently lives in Solomons, Maryland and is a marine biologist at the University of Maryland, focusing on fish research.
Outside of work, O’Brien has some upcoming domestic tournaments to ref, but, for now, reffing internationally for Sevens has come to an end.
“They’re building the referee team that will go to the Olympics and I did not make the next cut,” O’Brien said. “I made the second-to-last cut. So, Rugby World Cup was kind of my capstone. But, that will be it for me in terms of the international Sevens. It was a good run and a good way to end it.”
Although his international reffing days may be done, he’s not hanging up his whistle any time soon.
“I’m going to stay on with refereeing. I’m sure at some point I might randomly run out and play in a game or so later in my career, but at this point there is still plenty to offer in refereeing,” he said. “There’s a new professional league, Major League Rugby, and that’s been my next venture, to get in there. That will be its own mission, to get in that league. So, that’s what I’ll set my sights on.” ••