GET TO KNOW THE REF: Craig Maxwell Keys

This month, Craig Maxwell Keys reached a landmark – the youngest RFU referee to reach 100 professional matches. 

At just 31 – Craig is now considered one of the more experienced hands behind the whistle having overseen games in the UK and abroad – now a regular behind the whistle at premiership matches. 

Craig took time out of his afternoon to catch up with the team at ACME Whistles to find out more about the man behind the whistle.

Name: Craig Maxwell Keys

Age: 31, just the wrong side of 30.

Height: 6 foot give or take.

Fitness regime, what do you do to keep fit? 

Before refereeing I just did a lot of running whereas now, I do a lot of functional movement exercises in the gym. Lots of weight sessions and sprints, not to be big, but to be robust. 

Where do you live?

I used to live in the Midlands in Staffordshire then moved to Cheltenham, and I’m now with the other half in South London. 

What is your first memory of rugby?

My first memory of rugby is probably playing in a junior game. I think where we ended up with a 3 – 0 score line! I remember that it was hammering down with rain, cold and wet. It was not a spectacle of a game but for some reason we walked off the pitch having loved it. I was hooked.

How many years have you been refereeing?

Professionally I think it’s 8 years now. I started when I was just over 15 so it must be 16 years in total.

Quite depressingly I’ve now gone from being the future of refs, to be an old and experienced member of some groups. Things have changed quickly. 

Referee, Craig Maxwell-Keys calls touch during the British & Irish Cup, Round 2 match between Ayr v Cornish Pirates at Millbrae, on October 19, 2013

Can you remember your first game as a referee?

The first time I picked up the whistle was for a mini junior festival in Staffordshire. I think it was the under 12’s county festival – so for the under 12 calendar that’s pretty much the biggest day of the year. 

I remember it well as I was asked to ref the final because they were that impressed with what I was doing.

Because the referee in the final is traditionally given a bottle of whisky, and I was only 15 years old, I remember it creating a few problems. In the end they gave it to my dad.

What was your first professional game as a referee?

My first professional game, contrary to popular belief, was Newcastle V Exeter. Most people think it was the Northampton v Wasps game where I issued a red card early in the game. 

It had rained and was pretty boggy as it was before they’d put down the artificial grass.

It was the only Premiership game I did before turning pro.

Have you refereed any internationals yet?

I haven’t got onto the international circuit yet. I’ve run touch in Rome at the Six Nations, which is truly spectacular. We even got a police escort through the city of Rome as you don’t get anywhere very fast in that city.

Internationals are the exciting next step for me and I’m looking forward to cracking that nut to make it into the upper echelons of the game.

What’s your favourite stadium? 

Thats a great question. I was lucky enough to do the Munster v Maori All Blacks game over in Munster. Now that stadium is stunning. It’s got two really steep banked stands so the crowd is right on top of you – it’s an amazing atmosphere. 

Also, I’ve got to say Twickenham. Although its my home stadium I did the Army v Navy there and hearing 80,000 people in unison singing God Save the Queen is quite hair raising.

Who stands out for you as your sporting icon?

I was a kid when we won the World Cup in 2003 so it’s got to be Jonny Wilkinson. For me it’s not for his on-field skill, which was clearly immense, but his off-pitch characteristics that he brought to the professional game. That’s what inspired me.

What’s your whistle of choice?

It’s got to be the ACME Thunderer. The one I use was given to me by my local refs society when they turned fifty years old. They gave us all a new whistle which happened to be the same model as the one I was using at the time.

I’ve had two whistles in my time as a pro ref, this one has been around for about the last 50 games.

What’s the biggest moment in your career?

So far there’s a few! One would have to be running touch and being involved in the Six Nations.  

Another is stepping out at Twickenham, whether it’s a full or empty stadium, both are amazing.  I’ve reffed the Army v Navy game there when it was full, and then the Premiership Final in 2020 when it was empty due to COVID. Very few people get to ref at the home of English rugby.

Referee, Craig Maxwell-Keys during the Gallagher Premiership Cup Final between Exeter Chiefs and Wasps at Twickenham Stadium Oct 24, 2020 in London, England (Photo by Phil Mingo/PPAUK)

Who inspired you to take up the whistle?

The first person to really show me the value of refereeing was Steve Barr who managed the ref appointments for our local society – and also happened to be my high school’s business manager.

I was playing at that time, but then got injured, so started reffing. I’d referee and then go back to playing yo-yoing between the two. 

I enjoyed the game from behind the whistle and it was Steve that encouraged me carry on. Then, slowly but surely, the balance switched and I prioritised refereeing over playing. 

Looking back to those early games, there was always something about refereeing that I enjoyed more than playing. I think it’s the challenge that resonated with me – you never know what you’re going to have to deal with.

Whether he knows it or not, it was Steve who twisted my arm to stick with it or at least give it more of a shot than I otherwise would have.

If you had to pick one area the game that’s the hardest to referee what would that be?

I’m going to say the breakdown, partly because we have a lot more of them in the game, and partly as they are so dynamic. 

If you strictly look at the law book you could theoretically penalise every breakdown. So that’s where refereeing goes from being a science to an art.  You’ve got to ask yourself “when do I need to blow the whistle and when can I use communication to manage the game”.  

That’s where, as a referee we need to orchestrate some continuity into the game and find that balance and consistency to create a fair, flowing game of rugby.

It is something that will challenge you from day one as a local community referee, and still challenges us in the professional game week in week out.

What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever seen on a rugby pitch?

There have been a few, but the first that springs to mind is when I was called to do a pitch inspection to find a duck swimming around in the in-goal area. 

Another interesting experience was in the Dubai sevens, where we had an American NFL team playing an Irish Gaelic football team. 

None of them have played rugby in their life – so I was prepared for an interesting game!

It was a complete clash of different sporting backgrounds. Both teams got properly stuck in and didn’t hold back. 

They didn’t have a clue what they were doing, but they loved every second. It was so much fun to referee. 

Who do you think is the best player you’ve ever refereed?

The ‘best’ player would depend on what you appreciate in the game. For me there’s some really good ‘jacklers’ at the moment so it’s players like Jack Willis at Wasps coming back from injury and the skillset he’s got to get to those breakdowns.  I don’t think many people be able to get that low to the ground to steal the ball like he does, that’s immense, and it leads to entertaining rugby. 

Then you’ve got wingers who can sidestep someone on a 10 pence piece. For me I’d therefore have to add Jason Robinson as a standout player, simply because you had no idea where he was going to go or what he was going to do.

Who’s the toughest player that you’ve ever refereed?

Well first off, the toughest referee has got to be Ian Tempest. He’s taken some knocks in the past and always stands back up and carries on. 

Player wise, if you go back a few years, Schalk Burger was someone who just kept going and going. He took the knocks and dished them out, that’s exactly what rugby is about. It’s a physical game, but it’s disciplined.

If you were to take three things to a desert island what would they be?

I’d probably take the dog. I’d probably also take a pack of playing cards to amuse myself, and something to help light a fire.  

Do you have any hidden talents?

Absolutely not. I’m not a singer, I’m not a painter, I can’t juggle – so there were no hidden party tricks. 

I’m a chemist by trade, so spent two years in the Pharmaceutical industry and then while being a referee I’ve done a masters in sports psychology – to understand that side of the game a bit more. 

I love learning but nothing that would set a party alight!

Who would be your dream party dinner guests?

It’s got to be James Haskell because that would be comedy gold. To be honest, I’d also probably invite a politician along.  Maybe Boris. 

A mix of sport and politics would be great – however I don’t host dinner parties as my cooking is shocking and I have a terrible taste in music!

What do you want to do after rugby?

I think one of the challenges we have is retaining ex-referees in the game to coach the next generation – so that that would appeal. 

One of the most exciting parts about what I do currently is mentoring other refs coming through the system. That’s a really exciting aspect of what we do.

Outside of rugby, I could step back into the into the pharmaceutical world that I’m trained in or step up into the enter the world of sport psychology that I’m now qualified for. It’s great to have those two options available. 

If you could pick two teams to referee, who would that be?

Given the chance I’d go straight back to Dubai and ref the NFL v Gaelic football teams I mentioned earlier. They were brilliant!

On an international stage however I’d love to ref New Zealand. They produce some fantastic rugby – and if you look at the top games in the last 10 years, they invariably involve New Zealand.

Then domestically at the moment Quins are really exciting so why wouldn’t you want them on the pitch. 

Do you have any pregame rituals?

So, this surprises me as I thought I would, but no. 

That said if I referee a game and my career takes off from that point my answer may change 😉

Are you the first of your family to referee?

I’m the first. 

It’s quite funny because if you talk to my high school sports teachers, they would never have put me down as a referee. Yes, I enjoyed sport and always got stuck in, but was never centre of attention. I think they would be surprised with my career path!

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