An Abu Dhabi-based maths teacher who was prevented from playing rugby after suffering cancer as a small child has achieved a lifelong ambition by joining the World Sevens Series as a referee.
Jaco de Wit, 30, has been given leave from teaching duties at Cambridge High School in the capital to officiate at the highest level of sevens rugby.
The South Africa-born official debuted on the series in the behind-closed-door tournament in Dubai last weekend.
A week later, his busy first day in front of the packed stands of the Emirates Dubai Sevens included overseeing a shock 33-19 win by Spain over double Olympic champions Fiji.
The fact he has reached such lofty heights in the game is a remarkable triumph over adversity for someone who survived a cancerous tumour “the size of an ostrich egg” in his childhood.
“I had cancer when I was three years old which meant removing one of my kidneys,” De Wit said.
“I was never allowed to play rugby, but when I went to boarding house, obviously I tried my luck without my parents knowing. I studied the game from a young age because I just loved it so much.
“I picked up a whistle when I was 11 years old. At the age of 17 I decided I wanted to do this full time, because it’s the closest I can be to rugby.”
Elevation to the very top tier of officials in the abridged format has been the realisation of a dream which De Wit acknowledged he had all but given up on.
After a decade of refereeing in his native South Africa, which included serving an admin role on the sidelines at the George Sevens, he took up a job teaching in the UAE five years ago.
“When I moved here I basically just thought I needed to get my job done, but I packed my whistle like I normally do, wherever I go,” De Wit said.
“I joined a training session for the first time [with UAE referees]. I liked the environment. It was all good fun. I worked my way up to Asia Rugby, refereeing some sevens and XVs.”
When an official dropped out of the series of matches over two weekends in Dubai last year, which were organised to provide practice for the teams heading to the World Cup, De Wit received a call to help out.
Gallery from Day 1 of Dubai Sevens
“That was my opportunity,” he said. “I just wanted to do the job to the best of my ability and just enjoy it. I saw that as my one opportunity on the big stage.
“It went well, then in July I got an email from World Rugby telling me I had been nominated [to officiate on the World Series].
“When I received that, I contacted [UAE’s head of referees] Eugene Deegan, and said, ‘What is this?’ It was like a dream. Seeing my name on it was just surreal.
“It was stuff I had been dreaming of, but had given up on a little bit. Especially during Covid, when you keep training but you don’t know for what.
“Then on weekends you start meeting friends and family, you have a braai, and you think, ‘Well this is actually not too bad’. I almost thought, ‘Well, this is me’.
“When that call came, it all changed. It gave me the motivation to train again. It is wonderful to be part of the game we all love so much. I feel blessed, really.”
De Wit acknowledged there are differences between the usual games he covers, namely UAE domestic matches, and those on the World Series.
“First game out, I’m not going to lie — it was something totally different in terms of breakdowns,” De Wit said.
“It was a lot quicker, and obviously you have to add the stress factor of it being the first time out in the middle on the big stage. You tend to overthink a little bit.
“It took me two games to settle down. Now it is just a different ball game for me, really.”
Aside from the speed and technical differences of the games on the series, De Wit has also had to familiarise himself with the process of reviewing tight try decisions with the aid of technology.
During the Spain win over Fiji on Friday, he had to rule on one such incident, with the help of his fellow UAE referee Tony Duminy, who was an assistant ref for the fixture.
“It was a lot worse in the first weekend,” De Wit said of being self-conscious when seeing himself on the big-screen when reviewing a decision.
“You see yourself running out, and when you award a try you are just double-checking. I don’t know if that is a good thing.
“You get used to it, and if you do make a mistake, you just have to put it in a black box straight away and forget about it. Afterwards you can kick yourself on the backside and move on a learn from it.”