NATHAN Blanchard has controlled plenty of season openers in his time as a referee, but when he stood in the middle of Glen Willow Oval on Saturday for a round one clash it was a moment he described as "an absolute honour".
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Blanchard was given the job of refereeing the first match of the inaugural Peter McDonald Premiership - a competition created by the merger of Group 10 and Group 11.
Not only did the Mudgee Dragons versus Dubbo Macquarie match mark the start of the season, it was also played in front of a bumper crowd given it acted as a curtain raiser to the Manly-Canberra NRL game.
Mudgee ran out 34-26 victors, Blanchard saying the game "was played at a high standard, both teams really showed up."
But for Blanchard, what made it a game that ranks amongst the highlights of his refereeing career is that it came in a competition named in memory of a man who guided him in his younger years.
"I was very happy, very excited. It was an unreal feeling to do it to be perfectly honest," he said.
"Peter had a lot to do with me as I came through here in Group 10, he helped me with my refereeing, and it was an absolute honour to be able to do the first game that was named in his honour.
"It ranks quite highly, even though I've done a few grand finals and stuff like that, this, the opportunity to kick-off a new competition, a new initiative, to be able to be involved in something that meant so much to Ace [McDonald], it ranks right up there.
"I'm very happy with it, I didn't think I was a chance to do it. Then when I got the appointment I was like, 'This is unreal'."
Blanchard has been refereeing senior games in Group 10 since 2004.
Last season to help out Group 11 when they were short on officials Blanchard refereed a reserve grade match - something he called an "eye-opening experience" - and ran a line in a first grade match later that afternoon.
Just as the new premiership gives teams from across the Western region the chance to test themselves against new opponents, referees will also face a learning curve.
"It's good to have the opportunity to be able to referee different sides after so many years of refereeing the same sides, I guess you get used to them a little bit, whereas this is a whole new challenge for us," Blanchard said.
"It's learning new players and learning the way that teams play.
"Not knowing much about that Dubbo Macquarie side, they definitely put me to the test in certain situations, but that's where refereeing experience comes in handy.
"To have Simon [Hartas] from Group 11 on my line, he was able to help me in regards to player management of the Macquarie side, because obviously I didn't know much about their players. It's a really good opportunity to learn from each other and bring out our best in the game."
Working with officials from the Group 11 region is something Blanchard is looking forward to as well.
"It's good to be able to see and work with other officials in the area. We don't get much opportunity to do that," he said.
"I think the more we're able to officiate with other people, the more we can still learn as referees. I've been doing it for a number of years now and I still haven't walked off the field knowing I've had the perfect game."
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