USARFU plans to send a 20-something referee to New Zealand this March, in an effort to nourish younger officials with elite potential.
The governing body Monday announced an annual scholarship, named after the distinguished Bostonian Don Morrison, that is intended to underwrite season-long instruction and assignments in major rugby nations. This year's inaugural grant will place an 18- to 25-year-old ref in Canterbury.
The initiative will be generally welcomed. Whereas domestic referee societies are often criticized for rewarding seniority instead of potential, overseas placement promises not only sharpened technical skills but also accelerated opportunities. And one newly returned, dramatically better referee can improve matters for dozens of teams over the course of a season.
'I am not convinced there is any other way our referees can gain the experience they need or earn the necessary credibility within the [International Rugby Board] than through a program like this', one veteran official noted.
Host unions also prefer younger referees, USARFU referees director Ed Todd observed in an email. Neophytes don't compete with domestic officials for plumb appointments. Moreover, in New Zealand and elsewhere, one can work part-time to defray personal expenses under a 'holiday working visa'.
Selecting youngsters is perilous, however, in that they may fail to reach their potential, or professional and family demands may come to supersede their best intentions of advancing in rugby. While national-level players can go on to win lucrative overseas contracts, referees have no such opportunities.
Under the aegis of the US Rugby Football Foundation, a trio of young refs have recently gone to Canterbury, arguably the world's strongest province, with mixed outcomes. Brian Zapp has reached the so-called national panel; but another on the cusp of the premier ranking stepped away to pursue career interests.
Some 10 years ago, Boulder itself fostered similar placements, yielding national panelist Paul Bretz among others, but such efforts do not appear to have been sustained.
Through its year-old 'zone manager' program, USARFU has identified some 15-20 credible candidates, Todd said. The union is further soliciting applications as well as donations.