Former Southland detective Paddy O’Brien says he didn’t hesitate in saying yes to being patron of Wing 370.
“I wanted to give something back to Police and that was a great way of doing it. I have always loved it and respect what the police do.”
Paddy joined Police in 1978 aged 19 and served until 1995. “The reason I didn't stay is – and it’s my own view – is that it's a 15-year career because I think you can get burnt out otherwise and you can get a bit insular. I went for my own mental health basically. Having said that, I miss the police every day.”
But he landed on his feet. The year after he left Police, he became the world’s first professional rugby referee. “I was just there at the top of the refereeing tree, so the timing was near on perfect.
“Refereeing was a passion, it was never a job. And then it became a job, which has implications – becoming public property and also becoming professional in your approach. That was the big change. Professional rugby in New Zealand was strong… and every ground was packed out.
“All of a sudden, I was in everyone’s lounge every weekend, and I wasn’t used to that. But you fall back on your police training on how to deal with something you're not used to... There were so many things I learnt as a young copper that I was able to take onto Twickenham, Ellis Park and so on.”
Paving the way
The 56 recruits on Wing 370 range in age from 19 to 52 so, Paddy says, he might not be a household name for many of them. “I haven’t refereed since 2005 so some of them were probably only just born [when I was refereeing] and don’t know much about me.”
However, he found them hugely welcoming when he spoke at the wing pōwhiri in early July. He told Police News he didn’t want to be a patron by name. “But I am very conscious of getting the balance right between interfering, which I don't want to do, and just being available… the last thing they want is an old cop trying to tell them what to do.”
He told the recruits he planned to catch up with them two more times before graduation on October 19. “I want to be available should they need any mentoring or advice because, having been down the road that they're going to go down, I’m happy to help them pave that road a wee bit easier.”
He says he also spoke to the recruits about retaining a positive frame of mind. “One of the things I'm really conscious of [and] one of the dangers in Police, I found, was that you end up being quite insular and only having cops as your friends. I encouraged them to make sure that doesn't happen because that's what happened in our day. Be a police officer [but] when you get home take the uniform off and don't be a police officer.”
Right and wrong
He concedes the challenges for police are different now – he cites issues around social media, more serious drug incidents and a greater lack of respect for authority but “nothing's changed between right and wrong.” The other thing that hasn't changed in 100 years is Police’s values” – putting people at the heart of everything an officer does, he says.
Paddy also says making mistakes is vital to success. “I look back at my refereeing career and I had a really poor game at the Rugby World Cup in 1999. But I never let that game define me. It's the game that actually probably saved my career because it was crap and I had to strip it back.” He says it did more for his refereeing than all the good games.
“It’s the same in Police, the things you learn from, the mistakes you make. The key to that, of course, is you don't make the same mistake twice. Police is basically the ongoing university in life.”
Life after Police
Paddy now works as World Rugby’s high-performance sevens referee manager after having earlier managed the XVs referees. “I had no formal training in management, but again I was able to use those [policing] skill sets – decision-making, communication and managing conflict – to become, hopefully, a very successful manager.”
He’s also chairman of the Invercargill Licensing Trust and is heavily involved in a project to build a $35 million dementia village in his long-time hometown. When he’s not travelling for rugby or tied up with his community commitments, he meets up with “a couple of my drinking buddies who are ex-coppers” and plays Police golf as often as he can.
“It’s a mixture of retired cops and cops still on the job. It's always good to catch up with them and get the lie of the land.”