Test referee Nic Berry has given an emotional tribute to the late Andrew Cole as mentor, role model and the embodiment of refereeing rugby in the right spirit.
Cole’s death from cancer last Saturday, at just 61, has hit hard the fraternity of referees worldwide as well as family, friends and the wider rugby community.
The Test referees for the series deciders this weekend featuring Australia-England, New Zealand-Ireland, South Africa-Wales and Argentina-Scotland will all wear black armbands.
The same honour in the StoreLocal Hospital Cup on Saturday is a reflection that Cole’s career in refereeing really did extend from grassroots to the Test arena.
“I owe ‘Coley’ so much. He was the one who convinced me to give refereeing a go after I’d politely declined,” Berry said of the referees’ coach turned close friend.
“He had such a humble, gentle way. He said he’d hold my hand from the first chat over coffee and he did from day dot. He’d be the guy I’d call when on tour because he’d walked this road.
“People always ask ‘Who’s the best ref?’ The blokes you remember aren’t the best or worst technically, they are the ones who do it the right way. Everyone loved Coley for that.
“He got the main stuff right and let the game flow without trying to push an agenda on the game.
“It’s so fitting he officiated 31 Tests because he would always think himself the 31st most important person on a rugby field. He’d say ‘I understand where my place is in the game’.
“His passing has hit everyone hard because he was universally liked and loved.”
Cole’s funeral service will be held next Wednesday at 10am in the chapel at Marist College Ashgrove, the school where his love of rugby mushroomed.
His family honoured the memory of a loving husband, father and grandfather with a moving tribute at last Saturday night’s Wallabies-England Test.
He had planned to be in the crowd at Suncorp Stadium knowing it would probably be his last. He had bought eight Wallabies jerseys for family and gone to the extra effort of having the date “July 9, 2022” embroidered on each.
Wife Anne-Maree attended with family. One seat was left empty amongst them for “Coley”.
“We had a blessed life together. He was pretty darn special in every way,” wife Anne-Maree said.
Cole’s career of 31 Tests (1997-2005) and 44 Super Rugby matches started long before when he was an emerging ref learning from the best in the 1980s.
He was a fresh face officiating at the Maroochydore Sevens alongside the late Kerry Fitzgerald, the Australian referee who was in charge of the 1987 Rugby World Cup final.
The referees’ squad at the tournament also included the late Barry Gomersall, of State of Origin repute, Test ref Sandy MacNeill and a youthful Scott Young.
In the spirit of fundraising for the tournament, they chipped in at the Calcutta to purchase a team. The Fijian outfit they put their money to actually won the tournament. There were no rules against such fun in those larrikin days.
Long-time confidante Young reflected on Cole’s enduring qualities.
“As a bloke, he was second to none. ‘Coley’ had a caring nature, was a great team man who could get on with anyone and a devoted family man,” Young said.
“He was a players’ ref. He earned their respect and he respected them.”
Cole had a wry sense of humour. He had high regard for former Wallabies skipper George Gregan but once likened it to “refereeing beside a train station” when the chatty Gregan was in his ear when playing for the Brumbies.
Cole handled five Six Nations Tests and enjoyed that rare thing in rugby by finishing a near 20-year career on his own terms.
The Brisbane dentist refereed the second Test between the All Blacks and the British and Irish Lions in Wellington in 2005. He had the best view of Dan Carter’s sublime two-try game.
He officiated further Tests in Cape Town, Tokyo and Dublin later that year and called time on one of the finest of refereeing careers.
He would eventually become the second-ever Australian to be appointed to World Rugby's Match Official Selection Committee in 2013, implementing policies designed to protect the welfare of referees.
In 2021, he was acknowledged for his services to the sport with the World Rugby Referee Award.
“This award honours your distinguished long-term service to the game and refereeing. It recognises your contribution to both the professional and amateur forms of the game over four decades as a referee, referee coach, World Rugby selector and mentor to many referees,” World Rugby Chairman Sir Bill Beaumont wrote in a letter to Cole.
Cole is survived by wife Anne-Maree, children Michael, David and Megan and two grandchildren.
Cole’s funeral will be held on Wednesday, July 20 at the Marist College Ashgrove Chapel in Brisbane. The service will begin at 10am with a wake at Brothers Rugby Club from1pm.