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  • Writer's pictureKaren Gasbarino

Canada’s Chris Assmus - Juggling Life & Loving It

Chris Assmus, 33, has found himself all over the world through his rugby journey. From starting his refereeing career in Montreal, Assmus has had a chance to experience life and rugby in France, South Africa, and England. His passion for rugby and desire to become a teacher eventually took him to Vancouver Island. Rugby and education always guided the journey.

Assmus and his wife, fellow referee Shanda, have now settled in Vancouver. An interesting bit of MLR trivia for you: Chris and Shanda were the first ever husband-wife referee/TMO combination. Ever. It’s good for Chris that Shanda understands not just the call of the whistle, but the balancing act that must ensue in order to pursue refereeing. He enjoys watching Shanda grow into her refereeing career. “She’s in the heart of her journey,” he shares, “that keeps me motivated to continue.”

As with the other MLR referees I spoke to, Assmus is a former player who found himself with the irrepressible need to stay involved with the game once his playing days were done.

The day job being necessary, Assmus enjoys teaching French Immersion at Chief Dan George Middle School in Abbotsford, and after spending four years full-time in the role, is referee development officer part-time with BC Rugby. While teaching is the long-term plan, Assmus enjoys his various responsibilities within rugby. As he explains, though the balancing act can be challenging, it’s working well for now.

Assmus has learned to enjoy the ride and accept all the realities that come with such a competitive calling. His MLR path has been up and down. Dropped in year two, Assmus doubled down and returned to the fray for year three. He takes it in stride, believing that all that happens is part of the journey and it all makes us better.

Assmus has officiated some big matches, including USA hosting the Maori All Blacks in 2013. His first official test match was a week after, an epic match in Uruguay, where Los Teros hosted Spain. “It was a proper war, the coolest experience in the early days.” For that reason, Uruguay holds a special place in Chris’ heart.

Assmus’ experience is vast. While he considers Sevens part of his past, he loved his time on the circuit in 2017-18. More recently, he factored in the 2022 Tik Tok Women’s Six Nations as TMO, a great stepping stone and a great education for Assmus.

In conversation, it seems that he’s got a particular talent as the TMO even though he fulfills all the refereeing roles in the MLR. He gets animated when he talks about the newly initiated 4th official and their tools and tech. “We’ve got a software platform where we are able to control our own replays and everything we need to see,” he says. Not having to rely on a director for footage – as is the case for the larger productions run by broadcasters – it really is a partnership between the on-field referee and their AR’s and TMO.

While an advantage, the flip side is that they don’t always get the ideal shots. “In Six Nations you are working with a director, a camera crew, and a replay operator who all work in rugby full time. They give you great angles.”

Still, when you control the software yourself, you see what YOU want to focus on, not a third party’s opinion of what you should see. In this way, there are fewer cooks in the kitchen.

While the TMO in MLR is still limited by production and the number of cameras, it’s constantly improving. “We’re still learning,” Assmus admits, adding it’s going well and by the end of this season should be running more smoothly.

Assmus marvels at how time flies, saying it’s hard to believe it has already been 5 years for the MLR. “In year one it was the kids and the retirees running around,” he says. While there are still players at the end of their careers, it’s great to see a lot more young and enthusiastic players on the pitch. “The quality and the speed of the players has gone up, the coaching levels have gone up, and in turn the refereeing levels have gone up as well.”

It means that it’s harder to predict week-to-week results for the fans, but the referees as well. “That’s just a mark to the increased level of effort on the ground. It definitely keeps us on our toes, the speed of it. In the LA/Toronto game I ran nearly 6 km in the first half. In year one, that would have been what I’d run in the whole game.”

With the league improving and the speed increasing, the TMO was a necessary addition this year. The extra set of eyes has proved invaluable. Prior to this season, everyone agreed TMO was needed. Not a week went by where pundits and fans alike claimed how different the outcome would have been. On the flip side, now that we have the benefit of the TMO, critics abound.

Assmus isn’t worried about the criticism, and instead welcomes it. “The fact that we are talking about it is a good thing. It means there’s no indifference and it shows that people care. It is a performance league and we understand that. People’s jobs are on the line, and we understand that too. The key thing for us is that there will always be individual mistakes or one-off incidents.” He adds that as the refereeing team becomes more comfortable with one another and each other’s roles, there will be more cohesion.

The TMO is a pressure cooker, but as Assmus says, pressure is a good thing and means you care.

“There will always be that gray area – that’s rugby and why we love it – but the more that the TMO can clear up, the better,” he says. People won’t always agree and there will always be a divide. There are, after all, two sides to every match. But getting the TMO to help remove the mystery and make it easy for everyone to follow will help to get all the stakeholders on the same page.

“As TMO you have to be super active, decisive and not passive waiting for the phone to ring,” Assmus explains. He does his homework. He reviews previous games and prepares for the next one. “The danger becomes when you start having self-doubt, when you start rewatching your calls 6, 7, 8 times slowing them down frame by frame over and over again. While sometimes you need to do that very thing, there are other times you need to have the courage to say ‘I’m moving on from this now’.”

As with the other refs I spoke with, Assmus puts the importance of match official development up there with player and coach development. In order for us to compete on the international stage, all components have to be nurtured and brought up together.

“There is a nice balance between giving people development opportunities and making sure performance is up to standard. I think our management has done a really great job at maintaining that balance,” Assmus shares. Up and coming refs are part of the team long before they make their first appearance in the middle. They are part of training, meetings, and run touch. They don't run out until they’re ready and the right games present themselves for that individual. Selection is key.

The key, Assmus says, is all stakeholders sharing the responsibility for development, much the way they do for players. “Basically,” Assmus says, “we need to find the next 1000 community officials that then become the next five MLR referees.” The global standard is the RFU. “They have more referees than some nations have registered players. They’ve built this incredible base, made it a positive experience for everyone, and made match officials part of the community.”

It all comes down to loving what you do. “The better you’re doing, the more enjoyment you are going to have.” To Assmus, it is a privilege to be doing it. “You should have more and more fun doing it as time passes and when it stops being enjoyable you pack it in. That’s fair to yourself and to the people around you.”

In terms of negativity, Assmus feels there’s no place for it. Abuse serves no purpose, except to drive people away from wanting to do it themselves. “By all means, criticize the decisions,” he says, “but keep the people out of it. Make it about the game and the decision rather than the person. As officials we sanction the action and the act, not the individual performing that act. It’s the same thing.” As a rugby community, if we work together to keep all of rugby a positive space, people will want to take on all the various roles, which in turn will benefit everyone.

People don’t often know the match officials. My hope in writing these pieces is that the average viewer gets a sense of the amount of work the referees do, a bit about who they are as people, how hard they work to keep their fitness levels high, and how much they love it.

After talking to four incredibly talented referees, one thing I know for sure is that the MLR has some very passionate and intelligent people officiating our games.

They love what they do, and most importantly, they care about the game of rugby and our core values. I could have talked to Chris Assmus about it all day, but he had probably a thousand things to get done - all before noon.

Karen L. Gasbarino, April, 2022

Rugby Hive Editor

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