The sporting life of a top rugby referee in lockdown

North Wales rugby union referee Llyr (yellow top) in charge of a Harlequins v London Welsh match

Llyr ApGeraint-Roberts has been a rugby union referee since 1998, and has officiated at a host of major international matches both home and abroad.

He spent many years as one of the few ‘Elite’ referees before stepping down to National Panel level.

North Walian Llyr talks exclusively to Grassroots North Wales correspondent Don Hale about his life, work, and his fascinating sporting career, as we remain in lockdown from this horrific pandemic.

Llyr’s first involvement in sport began in the late 1980’s, when he says he became mesmerised by the famous Tour de France cycling races shown on Channel 4 TV.

Then, he attended Ysgol Tryfan, and played mini-rugby for Bangor, whilst also playing football in the street, and attending swimming and gymnastics clubs.

He went on to play rugby for Bangor under 16s, had a game for Gwynedd schools’, and even represented Bangor juniors at cricket.

He always retained a keen interest in cycling though, and fuelled by his love of the television highlights, admitted to becoming ‘hooked’ on the sport.

Llyr says: “I just got on my bike and loved the freedom of exploring the roads of North Wales, and the adventure of going to different places. I joined the Snowdonia Cycling Club, then Clwb Rasio Mona (Ynys Mon), and had some success as a junior.”

He won several events in North Wales, and says he reduced his time for a 10-mile down to just 21 minutes.

His other times were equally impressive including: 57 mins for 25 miles, 1 hr 57 mins for a 50-mile time trial, and in 1992, Llyr won the Holyhead Road Race.

In a bunch sprint, he later gained his second category road licence and represented the Welsh Junior team in the Junior Tour of Wales and in the Manx International on the Isle of Man in the early 1990s.

His interest in cycling changed however, when he attended Liverpool University, when part of the Chester College of Higher Education, and started to play rugby, turning out for Chester in midweek, and he had a few games for North Wales Coasters rugby league side on a Saturday.

Llyr studied sports science, and wanted to understand how the body responded to exercise, and adapted to training. When he completed his university education, he took an extra year gaining a teaching qualification, before obtaining a job teaching PE at Edlington School at Doncaster in South Yorkshire.

It was here he met a young lady, Helen, who was later to become his wife. She came from North Yorkshire, and admits they both wanted a place so that they could live together – somewhere in the middle.

Llyr says: “She won, so I started cycling again, and rode for the Universal Cycling Club – without much success – before I returned to rugby again.”

He explained that when he first arrived at his school, they hadn’t played rugby for about 15-years, and says that when he refereed his first game, a year 7, under 12s match, he felt totally out of his depth. It was this embarrassing occasion that persuaded him to find out how to referee properly.

Llyr officiating at a Gloucester v Exeter match. Pic courtesy of Sky Sports

Llyr admits that his head of department supported his aim, and sent him on training course…the rest as he says is history.

He joined a local referees society and completed his first match in charge in 1998, and was quickly promoted, saying that partially, it was down to his young age, but that it was probably more due to his fitness, and the fact he had some playing experience.

He became the fastest promoted referee ever to come out of Yorkshire, and joined the National Panel of Referees in England in 2002.

Llyr was soon included in a select group consisting of the top 45 referees in England. He admits this fact created something of a paradox because as a patriotic Welshman, he then had to wear an English rose on his shirt whilst officiating.

Llyr (left) at the Referee of the Year awards with John Phillips, president of the Yorkshire Rugby Referees Federation

In 2010 Llyr was invited to join the “Elite” Group of Referees in England, which at that time only included just 12 top referees.

His love and passion for the game created countless opportunities worldwide, and he was put in charge of several prestigious rugby matches in South Africa, Romania, Ireland, France, and Italy.

And he even refereed a cup final in Russia, an international schools’ tournament in Japan, and the World Student Championships in Portugal.

Llyr was rapidly in demand at both home and abroad and has refereed numerous Premiership matches on Sky Sports and ESPN.

He also refereed in the Women’s Six Nations Tournament, including Wales v Spain, and France v Scotland, but says his biggest games involved being appointed as reserve referee for some of England’s full internationals.

These included England v Samoa, and England v South Africa.

He has refereed several times at Twickenham, which he claims was a ‘fantastic experience,’ and appeared in front of the notorious “Shed” at Gloucester.

Llyr says that nowadays supporters are often too quick to criticise referees, and bemoans the use of television scrutiny, but wonders how many other people could deal with the pressure.

He says: “The RFU would not appoint a referee to a game if they felt he couldn’t cope with it. There is too much at stake! I think this is true of any sport, but it is very easy to point the finger.

“Unless you have experienced being in the middle of a cauldron in a large stadium, with players knocking lumps out of each other in front of thousands of fans, how can anyone make these criticisms? We are all human and humans make mistakes. We can’t be perfect, but we can strive to be accurate.”

Llyr admits that refereeing at the highest level, and all the associated travelling, whilst trying to hold down a full-time job as a PE teacher, and being a husband, and a father to two young boys, took its toll, and proved a very difficult task. He says he had to make too many sacrifices to reach the top, and praised his wife and family for their continued support.

In 2013, he decided enough was enough, and stood down from his “Elite” group status, but continues to referee at National Panel level, just below the Premiership, and claims that even though he is now 47, he is still fit and able to run around with the players.

He confirmed though how the sport has changed, and said when he was refereeing a match recently, he was older than the combined ages of his assistants. He remains pleased that he came out of the top group, and now welcomes the chance to spend more time with his wife and family, and even helps to coach other referees now.

Llyr also enjoys running, and although he has always kept himself fit for the game, he only returned to serious running in 2014, when his eldest son joined their local athletics club.

Llyr’s eldest son Sammy is a highly promising runner

He says: “I trained with him and we did parkrun as a family. My sons, Samuel and Benjamin, got more and more into running, and so did I. I had a dabble at some races, and I also did a couple of 10ks, and even a half-marathon which I ran in 1 hr 22 mins, which was a lifetime best.

Youngest son Benny makes his rugby debut

“So that was it, and like a good wine, I have matured with age. My eldest, Samuel, moved to a larger athletics club, and I also wanted to join a club.

“I have no real affinity to the area though, so I decided to contact North Wales Road Running Club (NWRRC), in Llandudno, to see if they would let me join.

Llyr with NWRRC team-mates Jonathan Kettle (left) and Martin Green (centre)

“I was accepted as a member, so I am now flying the flag for my native North Wales again. My eldest son is having more success than me, and has also represented Wales at under 20 level. My times though have improved and I’m hoping I get quicker as I get older.

“My times for a half are down to 79 minutes, 35 for a 10k, and 17 mins 30 secs for a 5k. What I like about the races and the parkruns are the age category positions.

“I might not win a race – although I was 2nd at Bangor the other year – but getting an age group win and seeing my time decrease is a real motivator.”

Llyr also runs with a local running group close to where he lives, trains with them a couple of times a week, and says it gives him a ‘release from work.’

Although these are currently very difficult, often dangerous, and uncertain times, as we battle this pandemic, he says running brings him different purposes, and allows him to contemplate his thoughts, particularly on a long Sunday run.

Llyr competing in the North Wales Inter-Club Relay Championships

Llyr explained: “I find it so surreal, with life as we knew it no longer allowed! Running though hasn’t been a problem during lockdown, as we are quite rural here. Within a few hundred metres from home, we are in the countryside, so social distancing hasn’t been an issue. What I’ve missed however, is training with the group I belong to.

“And as for work, we are shut, except for looking after for vulnerable students, and I work on a rota basis, so physically I am into work for one day, and my next day is scheduled for 13th May. That said, I am working from home, setting work, marking, and getting everything organised for next year’s timetable/groups.

“My job title is Head of Physical Arts (PE, music, dance and drama), and refereeing wise, I haven’t refereed a game since March, as the leagues were first suspended, then terminated, so there is no more rugby until next season – whenever that will be – and it could even be January 2021!

“Fitness wise, apart from a niggle, my fitness is fine, and last weekend I ran 10k in 36 mins 59 secs, but I am missing a bit of fizz which comes from training with others that can push you further. What has frustrated me with my running for the last few weeks or so though, has been a niggly pain in my lower abdominal muscles and groin, so I have done more biking.

“I think I strained those muscles when lifting the trampoline at work just before schools closed. And like me I didn’t rest properly when it first happened, and just carried on. So, this week, I have cycled and perhaps the weekend, could be a first run-day of the week.”

One of his proudest moments nowadays though, is to run with his eldest son Samuel. He can run about 14 mins 41 secs for a 5k (parkrun distance), and has some excellent times on the track.

Llyr confirmed: “He is my determination, my motivation and my inspiration. There is nothing better than running with him. He’s just jogging along recovering, whilst I am blowing out. How times have changed from when I first paced HIM at parkruns, but that’s life I suppose.”

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