Love him or loathe him, Bill Harrigan has left an indelible mark on Australian sporting history: both on the field and off.
With a career spanning more than 30 years, including overseeing an amazing 446 rugby league First Grade, Origin and Test matches – not to mention his role as a referee consultant and executive organiser of Australia’s popular Oztag – the former police officer is easily Australia's most recognised referee.
And it all began when Harrigan joined the NSW Police Force back in 1979, following in his father's footsteps.
He quickly rose through the ranks to become an inaugural member of an elite squad called the Tactical Response Group, or TRG.
As a member of the TRG, he was often thrown into life-threatening situations, relying on his skill, knowledge and training to survive.
After a number of years with the TRG, Harrigan transferred to the Special Weapons and Operation Section, or SWOS. He became a police negotiator – exposing him to the good, the bad, and the ugly of the human condition.
“I was talking people off buildings, the Gap (a notorious suicide spot in Sydney), and the Harbour Bridge,” he says.
During his time with the police force, Harrigan continued to pursue his sporting interests. He obtained his referee tickets and slowly built his profile within the game.
Officially graded in 1983 with the NSW Referee’s Association, Harrigan made his first grade debut in May 1986 – Wests v Cronulla at Lidcombe oval.
Of the hundreds of games he has since refereed, the one Harrigan most vividly recalls is the 1989 Grand Final between Canberra and Balmain, which went into extra time. No club outside Sydney, in the 81 years of rugby leage, had ever claimed the premiership. Canberra won 19-14.
“It was a fantastic Grand Final and has been voted the number one Grand Final in the modern era,” Harrigan says.
But along with the highs, Harrigan has endured his fair share of lows.
Harrigan has felt the full force of the media’s scrutiny as the result of contentious calls and has even been nicknamed “Hollywood Harrigan” for his perceived desire to be in the public eye.
One of Harrigan’s most disputed calls occurred during Origin One in 2009. He and co-referee Tim Mander ruled that NSW’s player Jarryd Hayne had put a foot on the sideline in the eighth minute, denying Hayne what many believed was a legitimate try and even a series victory.
Harrigan says making tough calls such as this was simply a part of the job.
He says it sometimes meant standing by his convictions in the face of public disparagement.
“The media would sometimes carve you up and it’s unfair – they may have got it wrong, but they’ve already put it out there and so people hear it and see it and say: ‘Ok, you got it wrong’ – when you’ve actually got it right,” he says.
Harrigan found himself in another tight spot during the ARL v Super League rivalry of 1994 to 1997. During this time, a war waged between Super League and ARL, with a number of ARL teams leaving to join the Super League.
When Super League offered Harrigan full-time employment in 1995, he accepted and offered his resignation from the police.
However, due to the Super League war, Harrigan’s was sacked by the ARL and was unable to referee again in Australia until 1997.
Despite the cloud of hardships Harrigan faced during the Super League war period, there was a silver lining.
While refereeing a local competition in Papa New Guinea, Harrigan experienced an event that remains even to this day a highlight of his career.
The game was Mount Hagen v Chimbu and there were about 6,000 spectators. And as local games go, there was a lot of feeling and passion in the crowd. Harrigan recalls the audience cheering throughout the entire game.
With only moments before the final siren, Harrigan ruled a forward pass that disallowed a try which would have cemented victory for the losing Mount Hagen team.
Harrigan recalls the erupting thunder of the audience, cheering what he thought was: “Kill-im’ Kill-im’ Kill-im’”.
“At the end of that game, Chimbu won – in Mount Hagen – and about 3,000 spectators jumped the fence and came running onto the field toward me.
“I thought I was a dead man.”
When a couple of people hit him in the leg, Harrigan naturally started to hit back, thinking he was in a lot of trouble. Instead, they lifted him up onto their shoulders and the crowd cheered him on.
And at that point he realised what he thought was ‘Kill-im’, Kill-im’...’ was actually ‘Bill-y, Bill-y!’.”
“It was like I was a rock star,” Harrigan says.
BUILDING HIS OWN FIELD OF DREAMS
Harrigan retired from refereeing after the 2003 Grand Final and has since built a successful career off the field.
He was a video referee for State of Origin in 2006 to 2008 and spent 12 months as a consultant to the Sydney Roosters.
He also returned to the NRL as a referee consultant and has released an autobiography, entitled Harrigan.
These days he enjoys running Australian Oztag. He says leading the youth through the organised sporting tournament has resurrected the leadership role that he has enjoyed all these years.
“Oztag is a great initiative and the kids just love it,” he says.
LESSONS FROM THE REF
Despite hitting some rocky patches in the past, Harrigan attributes his overall career success to having integrity, commitment and dedication to his craft – qualities he also looks for in a mortgage broker.
“I want my mortgage broker to have integrity, and I want them to be 100 per cent dedicated and committed to me,” says Harrigan, whose investments include two motels and a property at Port Stephens on the NSW coast.
Trusting one’s instincts is also an important key to success.
Harrigan says the minute someone ignores their immediate instinct and starts second-guessing themselves is when they inevitably make the wrong decision. And this is a sentiment that he has carried both on and off the field.
“You usually don’t think about making tough decisions at the time: it’s instinctive,” he says.