Chris Henshall: Breaking Barriers
In honor of “Referee Appreciation Month” at USA Rugby, we are profiling one of the best referees around, Chris Henshall, and his exciting and challenging path to multiple IRB appointments.
Chris was born in South Africa and began playing rugby when he was just five years old. He played throughout his school years and was captain of his team in Scottburgh, South Africa.
It wasn’t until 1993, at the age of 23, that Chris began refereeing as a “boarder master” at Durban High School (DHS) in South Africa. The reasons to first pick up the whistle were twofold, on the one hand he was forced to referee his own team that he was coaching and on the other he quickly realized that he was more likely to be able achieve elite status as a referee than he was a player. Shortly after this first foray, he became part of the Natal Sharks refereeing program under Phil Botha where he was awarded “Rookie of the Year” in 1995. In 1997 he moved to the Johannesburg Lions where he quickly moved up the ranks to the top territorial level.
In 2003, Chris relocated to the United States where he quickly rose through the ranks of domestic referees to the National Panel in 2004.
His impressive development as a referee led to his appointment for the 2007 match between the Netherlands and Switzerland as well as a spot in the IRB North America 4 in ’07 and ’08. The North America 4 later became the Americas Rugby Competition (ARC) and his performance throughout the competition earned his first appointment to a test match between Russia and Canada on November 28, 2009. Sixteen years of persistence and hard work to reach this major milestone in his refereeing career is the evidence of Chris’ dedication to both the craft of being a match official and the sport of Rugby.
At the time, Chris’ appointment to the Russia v. Canada match was the first IRB international appointment for a USA Rugby National Panel referee in four years. This was a high-level Test match between two top-20 teams in the world, both of whom are in the 2011 Rugby World Cup.
Chris’ strong performance during this match afforded him the appointment to the Jaguars v. Canada A and Tonga A v. Canada A ARC matches in Argentina (Cordoba 2010). Following these appointments Chris was appointed to the France A v. Uruguay match for the 2010 Churchill Cup.
To supplement his international refereeing career Chris constantly officiates Super League matches, having refereed the last four Super League Finals (’08-’11) and multiple collegiate and club championships.
As we find with many of the top quality referees, Chris feels that a referee can fundamentally shape the game through early calls that set a standard for the match. “There is a strong need for an academic approach throughout the game and when the standards are established early on the players can trust the referee and the game can take its natural course.” says Henshall “At this point, the referee becomes a facilitator to the match and all participants can gain from it.”
After so many years of top level refereeing Chris still has his eye on the goal of an appointment to the 2015 Rugby World Cup, a goal that he feels is achievable. His motivation comes from, “The desire to achieve the highest level as well as the challenge of being under pressure on the big stage.”
In the coming weeks Chris will be given yet another opportunity to perform on the big stage; his international performances have earned him the respect of South Africa’s referee manager, Andre Watson, and an extensive tour of that major rugby country has been provided. His tour of South Africa will include two U19 provincial matches, the August 6 Blue Bulls v. Lions match, a Western Province Sharks match, and two Currie Cup matches.
Regardless of the level of play, Chris is physically and mentally prepared for whatever comes his way. Through his dedication to becoming one of the best referees in the world, Chris has risen through the ranks and is proof that refereeing at the highest level is incredibly challenging and rewarding and it all begins when you pick up the whistle for the first time.