Swapping the boots for a whistle

SAMUEL SWIFT

When the final whistle blew on the 2017 season, Daniel Schwass was overcome with the raw emotions attached to winning the Gold Coast Rugby League A-Grade grand final.

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Daniel Schwass at a photo shoot for QRL referees. Photo: Supplied

But after celebrations had died down, and the elation of winning the premiership subsided, reality dawned that the love for a game that he had adored since he was six years old was slowly dying.

After enjoying a decorated young career that included playing three seasons with the Gold Coast Titans in the National Youth Competition, and more recently two seasons with the Burleigh Bears in the Intrust Super Cup that included a premiership triumph in 2016, the 23-year old was quickly faced with the harrowing question that faces so many young footballers; Do I want to play football anymore?

Schwass came to the realisation that his passion and desire for the game was diminishing, and the thrill of going into battle alongside his mates and putting his body on the line was no longer satisfying.

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Daniel Schwass in action for the Burleigh Bears during his final season in 2017. Photo: Supplied

“As a player, there is the constant pressure to perform week in, week out and I believe I got to a point in my career where I wasn’t enjoying that constant battle to perform each week as a player and my love for rugby league was fading,” Schwass said.

The challenge of balancing his work commitments with his university studies and a fading NRL dream began to take its toll mentally as Schwass began to see himself falling into a trap that had led to many other promising young players being lost to the game altogether.

During his time at the Titans, Schwass sat through numerous educational seminars conducted by the NRL focusing on preparing the National Youth Competition players for the rigours of professional football.

These included programs such as ‘No Work, No Study, No Play’ which were aimed at preparing players for the reality that the dream of playing football professionally may not come to fruition and reinforced the need for career plans outside of football.

With damning statistics such as; only two percent of all rugby league players reaching the professional level, and an average career spanning less than 22 games at that elite level, the chances of forging a long-term rugby league career were slim.

But rather than become yet another statistic of a flawed development system that has seen 28% of young players involved in NRL pathways systems giving the game away a within two years of being cut, Schwass was intent on rekindling the love for a game that had given him so much; albeit in a different capacity.

A phone call to Queensland Rugby League High Performance Co-Ordinator John Topp during the 2017 season put the wheels in motion for Schwass to continue his involvement in the game as a referee.

“I had a conversation with John Topp about the possibility of coming back over to referee and after those discussions, I saw a long-term opportunity to pursue a career there,” he said.

After previously refereeing throughout his years playing junior football, the promise Schwass showed in that time coupled with his playing experience at a high level had Topp excited about the opportunity to transition Daniel into the Queensland High Performance Academy for referees.

“Daniel previously showed promise throughout his time as a junior referee and the opportunity to have him come back across into the academy after his exposure throughout that elite football environment was not only going to be beneficial for him, but for us as a referee squad too,” Topp said.

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Schwass in his first game back refereeing for QRL. Photo: Supplied

But with the negative stigma currently associated with referees in the public sphere, Schwass’s decision to give up a potentially promising playing career in order to pursue a future in refereeing could be perceived as courageous.

Former NRL referee and current Head of Referee Development Pathways Steven Clark believes the current stigma attached to referees by media and fans is affecting the confidence of match officials at all levels.

“The increased scrutiny on our officials has made the expectations of fans very high in terms of the consistency and accuracy of decisions and this has impacted on the confidence of referees at all levels,” Clark said.

Yet whilst Schwass concedes that the current climate of abuse is detrimental to the overall image of the game, he refuses to concede that he is courageous instead choosing to see the pressure and criticism as a challenge when he walks out to officiate.

“The current expectations of rugby league fans that match officials are going to get it right 100 percent of the time is pretty unreasonable, so it does make it nerve-racking and overwhelming for a number of referees at all levels”.

“For me personally, I prefer to see the pressure and expectations from fans as a challenge as it drives me to be the best I can be every time I step out onto the field,” Schwass said.

This attitude has held the young whistle-blower in good stead so far across the 2018 season with the former Burleigh player recently officiating the National Schoolboy Final in July’s National Carnival at Kingscliff after already refereeing the Mal Meninga Cup state grand final earlier in the season.

Such an impressive resume of high-profile games so soon has even surprised Schwass himself who insists he is remaining focused on finishing the season well despite surpassing many of his goals he set earlier in the year.

“If you told me I would be where I am in my first season back I wouldn’t dare believe you but in saying that, I am remaining firmly focused on the concentrating on one game at a time in the lead up to the finals series and hopefully ticking off some more goals” he said.

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Schwass refereeing in the 2018 Mal Meninga Cup Grand Final. Photo: Supplied

A key factor in his rapid development with whistle in hand has been the welcoming environment fostered by the Queensland High Performance Academy of Referees.

Despite Schwass’s notorious habit to question decisions becoming renowned amongst the Queensland referee ranks during his playing days, his transition has been seamless and aside from the occasional ‘banter’, the senior members of the squad have proved integral in his career to date.

“I was notorious for offering a word of advice to referees throughout my career as a player, so it’s definitely made for some good banter and laughs at training”.

“The people in the squad have been really accepting and being new to the squad it was a luxury to have guys like Michael Gordon, Nick Pelgrave and Tyson Brough, who have all refereed me throughout my time in the Intrust Super Cup, become mentors to me as I start my own refereeing career,” Schwass said.

As for advice for fellow players who may be losing their passion for the game, Schwass believes refereeing is a great way to stay connected with rugby league and learn new skills that can be applied to all aspects of life.

“If your love for the game is fading in a playing capacity, I highly recommend giving refereeing a go because it allows you to stay involved in the game and helps you improve as a person because you learn so many new personal skills you wouldn’t otherwise learn through playing the game,” Schwass said.

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