This summer, tempers will flare and bodies will collide at the rugby competition at the Pan-American Games in Toronto. In the middle of it all will be referee Chris Assmus, who will be tasked with controlling the maelstrom of speed and aggression that is the game of rugby.
To do so, the 26-year-old Assmus will depend not only on a lifetime in rugby but also on lessons learned in an Abbotsford middle school classroom.
Assmus grew up playing the sport as a child in rugby-mad South Africa and has been refereeing ever since a shoulder injury while playing for the University of Ontario left him looking to stay involved.
After more injury troubles derailed an attempt to play full-time in France, Assmus turned back to refereeing, a pivot that landed him on Vancouver Island, where he worked with the Canadian national rugby program while studying to become a teacher.
Since moving to Abbotsford in 2013 to take up a French Immersion teaching position at Chief Dan George middle school, his refereeing resume has continued to grow.
In November 2013, he got the call to officiate his first full international test matches – a game between Uruguay and Spain in Montevideo, Uruguay, and another between the United States and the Maori All Blacks in Philadelphia.
The latter game, which was played in front of 25,000 fans, remains the peak of Assmus’ officiating career, he says.
“Walking into the change room at halftime, you realized how important that game was.”
The assignments have continued at home and abroad. Once a year, Assmus travels to Europe to continue working on his officiating skills, and Assmus was in Great Britain earlier this year refereeing a game between the Scottish under-19 squad and Japan.
Having graduated to refereeing national games between Tier 2 countries (a group that includes Canada), Assmus now has his eyes set on eventually officiating games between rugby giants like Australia and New Zealand.
“Next World Cup cycle, I hope to be part of that World Cup conversation,” he says.
But most days he can still be found in his classroom without a whistle.
Although Assmus says he has been approached to referee full-time, he has balked at the idea.
“It’s something that I hesitate to do because not only does teaching contribute to what I am as a person, it contributes to what I am as a referee as well.”
He continues: “Refereeing made me a teacher, and teaching makes me a better referee.”
The two callings both inform the need “to weigh perception – perception being reality,” he says. The jobs have also taught him lessons about relying on one’s position of authority.
“I’m not the biggest guy on the rugby field and if you act like you’re the biggest guy in the classroom, that’s not necessarily going to lead you to good things,” he says.
Similarly, both positions require a dedication to self-analysis and self-reflection, he says.
“You’re your greatest asset in terms of your review process, whether as a teacher or as a referee.”
Assmus was also responsible for bringing rugby to Chief Dan George. After having a single boys team in the program’s first year, Assmus got help from two fellow teachers, and 51 kids on a boys 15 team as well as girls and boys sevens teams signed up for the 2015 season.
And while the level of play isn’t what he’s used to refereeing, and there aren’t thousands of screaming fans scrutinizing every tackle, Assmus says the game is still a joy.
“It’s about treating every game with the respect it deserves,” he says. “Every game – whether it’s Grade 8 rugby or rugby overseas – to the players involved, it’s their World Cup final.”