Badge of Honour

May 6, 2016 @ 8:00 UTC

It's been a long and winding road to the top for Dave Baggio.

For Dave Baggio it's been a long and winding road to the top of the referee tree; from the back blocks of hometown, Wagga, and tournaments near and far, to World Number One Whistle-blower.

"35 mate - I'm getting old!" was the cheeky retort when asked how old our newest world number one whistle-blower was down the phone line at his native, central-western NSW town of Wagga.

The quiet and whippet thin 'Badge' has certainly emerged in recent years and is widely regarded to already be one of the refereeing ranks' greats in this country and across the globe. The respect and recognition he holds in the sport, goes well beyond the enclave of that peculiar breeding ground of international champions in Wagga: to the Wagyu producing regions of Japan and the Waikato region in NZ and everywhere else you care to throw a dart on the atlas where the six-a-side game is prominent.

"I think in your 30's you're more experienced naturally and you peak around this time," he professed with a maturity beyond his creaking 35 years.

"You just do a couple of things differently – I think when you're older you're definitely more calmer and composed. And being relaxed and calm under pressure and having good player rapport and player management and really focusing working on that the last couple of years I think has definitely improved my refereeing and myself."

And hold you in good stead and particularly in the big moments – just ask any official in the cut and thrust of a big match teetering on a knife-edge. To know how far he has come and how honest he is, consider the following frank admission and assessment.

"I made a big error in the first game, you could say," he confessed quite openly and candidly but with an air of his trademark assuredness regarding Australia's recent first Men's Open test match against New Zealand at the 2016 Trans-Tasman.

"I thought it was seven touches and I counted what I thought was one more," he went on.

"And I was on the sideline counting the touches and I advised Matt on the field at the time (cohort, Matt Lavery), that the Aussies (almost try-scorer, Matt Prowse as it turns out), had scored on the seventh touch and he said, naturally, 'are you sure?'"

"I said: 'yep, I am 100 per cent sure'... and straight away after the game I went up and looked at the video... and I was wrong." Whoah, big play. Big moments.

That the score eventually blew out to 12-7 to the rampant Australians who took care of business on the field in this, and ensuing two matches against the brave but beleaguered Kiwis, was not exactly the point.

It was the maturity and honesty of this unassuming but razor sharp decision maker that really impressed... and that he straight-up confessed. What was fair to say a very uncharacteristic blemish on an otherwise impeccable campaign in Auckland, is the hallmark of the new numero uno.

"We all make mistakes," he said. "But while it may not have had a big bearing on the outcome, it was still a big error and I was lucky not to get dropped actually.

"But you make a mistake like that you have to get over it... so straight away I apologised to the team and sought-out Traddy (Coach, Trad) and spoke to him post-match as well. You have to learn from it and move on and make double sure you don't make the same mistake again."

Any doubts as to why he is top of the referee tree should be dispelled right there. This guy doesn't generally make an error like this; rather it's generally always the opposite. But to openly admit, confess and learn from the error is in his DNA, not the least perform a mea culpa in front of his peers. And, he's learnt from the best too and didn't have to venture all that far to do so in his formative years. And he's come from pretty good stock, too.

"I remember the first guy I ever 'reffed' with was Rex Smith," in his day and at his pomp probably regarded as the best referee going around not just in Wagga but nationally and internationally.

"But it was at Jubilee Park at Wagga when I was about 18 or 19," he recalled when prompted on that first inclination to rather than sneak off-side in defence as a player, actually police that unconscionable behaviour from truly unruly players that flout the system.


"They just happened to be short one day," he said.

"And I said 'oh yeah, I could go help'... and as a relatively young guy I jumped at the chance.

"Rex was a great character but a real professional and great mentor and one of the original level sixers and the best. So I owe an awful lot to great people of the calibre of 'Rexy' and certainly Bernie Nix and Stephen Pike," (current Touch Football Australia Hall of Famer).  

"They were as good mentors as they were colleagues... and lot of fun to be around post-match too it has to be said," Well, knowing those characters as this writer does, whatever goes on in Wagga should probably stay in Wagga, we should say.

"Those boys (Nixy/Pikey), have had a lot to do with my progression since I have been number one in Australia and I thank them and all those before immensely."

And you ask some of the older folk in the know that have travelled the greater west of the premier state and down along the fields adjacent to the snaking Murrumbidgee River, and they would have you believe that the way 'Badge' moves and the how he gets himself into such great position and body height is uncannily reminiscent and for some, the ghost of Rexy in times of yore. The younger one of course perhaps a little less follically and waistline challenged than his older contemporary.

"And I went from there pretty much: (NSW) Country Championships and State Cups and all those various events to officiate and learn from others and about myself."

Joining his Wagga stablemates of some stature, noting too Luke Mackenzie who now resides in the Sunshine State, is his long time buddy and mentor and national panel member, Chris Dolahenty - with whom he shares a deep level of respect and admiration. One wonders if only Baggio junior got to witness the refereeing exploits and deeds of the late and great Chris Sterling, beloved sister of yet another famous Wagga product, NRL and Parramatta legend, Peter Sterling.

And while he has always been quite handy telling players what to do, just like his brother and former representative gun, Andrew Baggio and one of the original masters of the Murrumbidgee, father Marino, he also has a pedigree in the game as a player of some repute and reputation.

But just when did the penny finally drop that it was probably the whistle not the ball in hand which would hold sway and shape his on-field destiny?

"It was probably back in 2003 or '04 pretty much when I was playing with the Suns in Men's Open (at the NTL), that I worked out that I was never going to amount to too much as a player and get to the top level," he confessed back home at Wagga.

"And that was my one... one and only you could say!"

Coming second just doesn't really come naturally to this bloke. Hmmm, number two. Silver medal... next in line, podium finish. Not at all a palatable outcome or way to spend your days for the man they call, Badge. In fact he was over it. Repeatedly being in the shadow of his great mate and now deposed number one, New Zealand's legend law enforcer, Miah Williams.

"Always coming second unfortunately, was really getting to me I have to say," he said but in the greatest respect he holds for his equal part Antipodean adversary and team-mate.

"I'd been really working hard at the World Cup and since on various improvements and got close (to number one) but not close enough. But this one (Trans-Tasman) was spot on which was good.

"Miah was great, as his way," he said. "He congratulated me along with all the other referees' brigade," Baggio said and just as well, as the two are near inseparable at events and were in fact sleeping at very close quarters in respective beds only a metre apart at their Auckland accommodation. No doubt calling players for offside and dumping the ball incorrectly and practising their counting sets of six, rather than sheep in their sleep, one could only assume.

To that other great mentor in the Australian refereeing ranks, some sage words from the old referee sage and great admirer of Baggio, himself.

"When you think about it, it's a great story his development and journey as a referee," Ian Matthew, the national technical director of referees said recently in Auckland.

"No doubt, total persistence has played a large part and the desire to be at his personal best, irrespective of what that is. Combine that with a really good person and you have all that's good and the ingredients for the future in refereeing.

"Unlike playing where wins are achieved as a unit, being a number one referee at any level is personal and individual – just ask Miah (Williams)," Matthews pointedly remarked. Williams of New Zealand, hitherto roundly regarded across the world and referred to in referee / event circles as, no surprises here, 'number one', alas now slots back to number two after a long time in the saddle as the primo match official.

"Mate, to give you an idea of the journey," Matthew beamed on Baggio receiving his gong, "Badge was 'state-graded' in 2002, attended nationals in 2003 and followed through the levels from there. He has attended many NTLs, Trans-Tasman's and World Cup events and most of this coming from the back of the pack and refereeing the majority of his career as number two.

"He really has worked hard on mind strength, composure and people management which are all traits needed for the elite referee. He now is the top of his field and will set the standard among the up and coming Australian referees and referees around the world."

Great advice from that man, Matto. And some advice from Baggio for up and coming referees (clearly channelling his current key coach and mentor)?

"Listen to your coaches. Listen to what they have to say and try and implement what they tell you to do.

"And if that doesn't work, find something else that does. Definitely."

Great advice. Mr Baggio, Sir, you have done yourself, the fraternity/country, the 'Matto/Dola' combo... and even the old firm of Rexy/Pikey/Nixy, very proud.

Article courtesy of Julian Buckmaster - @JulianTFA.

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