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Jaco Peyper, the legend of the whistle

There are not many people who represent a sport better than Jaco Peyper does. The ref, of an extensive career in both, national and international rugby, offered his services in the historical game between Spain and Fiji of the tests of November. One of the most renowned referees in the world that is still enlarging his legend in his illustrious career.  

Photo: Anuar Gómez

First steps 

After 20 years on duty, the 41 year old ref that took the field for over 100 Super Rugby games, claims that: “I used to play but I got injuries. The body didn’t want to play anymore. I love rugby, and where I grew up rugby is the main sport and I’m very passionate about rugby so refereeing was a good way to stay on the field, to stay fit, to stay in touch with the game I love”. Moreover, Jaco clarifies: “I didn’t think when I was 18 years old that I would be a referee, but refereeing has given me great experiences so far”.

With the passion as a fuel for his engine, hard work paid off when, nearly 8 years after his debut as a ref, he was called up for Super Rugby. “I was lucky at the time because some of the referees, older referees at the TOP, they stopped at the same time so there was a gap at the bottom, a natural gap, which I was lucky enough to get the opportunity earlier than most people and then things worked out” explains the South African ref. On a similar note, Peyper understands that “you need a lot of luck to get there, it’s not because you are good, sometimes you need the opportunity. I’ve seen many good referees that just the opportunity is not opened at the time, so I was quite lucky”. 

A dream come true

Being one of the refs conforming the list for the Super Rugby 2008 games, Jaco made his debut in Johannesburg, Ellis Park. “It was massive. You walk into the stadium the first time you actually referee a game there, I remember it being very fast. It was a team from New Zealand against a South African team, and it all went very fast. Before I even knew the game was already over” declares Peyper. 

Nobody knew back then what it was to come. That day in Ellis Park a legend of the whistle was born. Now, 13 years after his first Super Rugby appearance, Jaco Peyper has joined the likes of legends of the refereeing world such as Steve Walsh, Jonathan Kaplan or Craig Joubert with over 100 Super Rugby games, heading the list of the refs with the most directed games. “Fortunately I could start quite young so I had a lot of time to get there. I think, to be fair, in the starting years when I began refereeing there were like four or five Super Rugby games a year. When I came in, it was six – seven per year, so it was easier for me to get there” asserts the South African. To which he adds: “I’m not better than the refs that were there before me, I just had more games. The competition was Super 10, Super 12 and at some stage Super 15, so I had more opportunities to get there”.

An impressive record of a ref that reached the peak of a list of Super Rugby games. A fact that he now describes as: “it’s a great competition. I’m sorry it’s in the past, but I’m also looking forward to a new pathway in the northern hemisphere, so that’s a new challenge, it’s something fresh. Maybe I’ll stay on go for one or two more seasons for the new stuff”.

The tour of the Lions

Among the uncountable experiences in the refereeing world, it seems a hard job to choose a ‘best moment’. However, a special event always comes to his mind. Jaco had the pleasure of officiating the opener of the British and Irish Lions 2017 tour against New Zealand: “that’s for me, if not the top of my memories of rugby, it’s one of the top 5 memories of rugby. It was a very special tour and obviously playing every four years, and New Zealand at the time were the N1 team in the world, and the Lions were a very good team. As we could see, the series were equal after the series. It was a special time and so many Lions supporters in New Zealand. Back then all the people couldn’t fit in the stadium. There were many people around the stadium and pubs.” states the ref. Grateful for the opportunity, Peyper declares: “It was really special and I was fortunate that the game I refereed was great. The quality of the play, and the weather was good. I remember that at the second game it was raining and it was not easy to play. However in my game it was dry pitch, great skills in both teams. The Lions scored a magnificent try in the first half. It was just wonderful. And then when you think back, it makes you feel very privileged to have been in that”. 

A very singular team that represents the values of rugby to its all: “I think the Lions are in that concept of rugby of the ‘uniqueness’ spirit. Those players go back and they fight each other in VI Nations, but in the Lions they play together as a unit and they go to ‘war’ together. This shows you what rugby can do… bring people together. In South Africa rugby has brought many different cultures together. From the past we had issues and when South Africa won the World Cup, you should see the different people coming together and being happy together. That’s what makes rugby great”.

Photo: Anuar Gómez.

Rugby on its all

A special sport with a particular energy. The South African ref has it clear: “the spirit of rugby is people coming together. When the game is over ‘we are the closest ones together’, which doesn’t happen in many other sports. No matter what happens in the game, because straight after it we have a beer together. That’s what makes rugby unique”.

After the convulsive time caused by the COVID pandemic, the ‘normality’ is back at the stadiums. A matter that the ref is happy about: “The fans are passionate in South Africa so the home team you know will always have a good cheer. It makes it special because you see the players that they ‘interact’ in a sense with the crowd, and they feel the support of the fans. With the empty stadiums it felt like the game needed something. Sometimes the players seem to be at the Captain’s practice because there was no ‘excitement’, and the intensity is a bit lower. It is great news that now the crowds are going back to the stadiums”. Putting into value his experience in Spain, Jaco claims: “I really enjoyed the Spain-Fiji match, it was great to hear the people cheer, being very sportive, when the other team scored there were also cheers. That’s the spirit of rugby”. And he declares: “ For me it has been a very good experience and I will never forget that. I think we should always engage with the fans because the day we stop engaging with them, we should stop refereeing or stop playing”.

Unique memories

Reaching the climax of his career with two World Cup experiences, the unique atmosphere of the tournament is something that Peyper describes as: “a fantastic competition. There is so much attention to it that it’s wonderful to live that 6/7 weeks and test yourself, and the teams are so prepared for the tournament so it’s great”. And the ref points that: “again, in a World Cup, you bring over different cultures together. Tokyo in Japan 2019, just to see all the different cultures come together and live in a different way was incredible. England was something totally different, not better or worse, it was a different good. It was wonderful to be in those World Cups, it’s memories that you will never forget”. “I had been in Tokyo before for Super Rugby and one test match before that World Cup, but I never got the chance to go everywhere in Japan. 6 weeks, bullet train, you go here and there so we got to see most of Japan. Many bullet trains, I only had to fly twice in the whole competition, which is fantastic. Coming from South Africa where our public train system is not nearly as good as that, so it’s very interesting to go with the high speed trains” asserts the ref. 

Still, with some years of professional rugby ahead, the future generations have a good role model to look up to. Lately, Jaco has shared many moments and learnings with younger refs of whom he claims: “It’s lovely to spend time with other refs from different nationalities. It’s lovely to understand how they see rugby. Maybe I can teach them something, but the good thing is that when I listen to the young referees I actually learn as much as they do”. “Preparing a match is always a challenge because when you have to communicate, there is a rugby language but sometimes it’s easy with signals. When you have to stop you have to find ways to communicate and what people don’t understand is that English is possibly not the first language of the captain, it’s not my first language, or not even the first language of the assistant ref or the TMO, so a lot of preparation goes into communication, being able to deliver a message that everybody can accept or understand. That’s a big part of the preparation for each game” declares Peyper. 

With new adventures to come, Jaco looks to the future with the excitement of a beginner, but with the extensive experience that only a true legend of the whistle has. From Up & Under Spain, we will be following his next steps. 

Anuar Gómez.

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