By ADAM HICKS
IF the lip he gave officials while playing for the Roosters is any indication, Luke Phillips' mouth should be comfortable with a whistle in it.
Phillips, former Rabbitoh Paul Mellor and Cronulla's Henry Perenara were unveiled this week as the NRL's guinea pigs in a program designed to turn former footballers into referees.
Former NRL referee Mark Oaten, who shared the field with all the new recruits before he finished with the competition in 2003, said the former players were moving into an entirely different game.
"Luke Phillips, he knows the rules," Oaten said.
"I can remember refereeing him he used to tell me I was getting them wrong all the time.
"Refereeing requires a completely different mindset from playing.
"Fitness wise they'll handle it, but it is a mental game, not a physical game.
"The thing is they are going from a team environment to a more individual set-up."
Oaten said the players would have a good understanding of the game to launch into refereeing, but laughed off suggestions they would get extra respect from players.
"They call us a necessary evil," Oaten said.
"We just have to be for the game to happen.
"You don't really earn any respect from the players till you've done at least 50 or 100 games."
The new refs will start by controlling schoolboy teams with hopes to move up to the Premier League within 18 months and on to the NRL by the end of their three-year traineeships.
"These blokes are getting thrown into the deep end," he said.
"It is an enormous step from Premier League to the NRL."
Former experiments with player to official transitions have had limited success with Manly's Barry Walker and North Sydney's Mark Soden enjoying only short careers with the whistle.
Oaten said that while there was no guarantee players would make good match officials, he supported moves to broaden the depth in the professional refereeing ranks.
"It depends on how they make the transition," he said.
"They're going to have to get them from somewhere. Their depth is very threadbare.
"It was the same when I was in it.
"Since 2003 they've only blooded three or four new blokes so the blokes who are still refereeing, the core blokes, are all around 40 years old."
The depth has already diminished with veteran referee Steve Clark announcing his retirement this week.
"There are no real young referees that I've seen come through," Oaten said.
"(Paul Simpkins) Simmo is thinking about retiring (he did late last night). (Shayne) Hayne will try and go till his legs fall off. (Sean) Hampstead might be going soon.
"In the next two years they could lose up to four top referees.
"(The new scheme) has to be good. They have to take steps to keep referees coming through."
Oaten said country referees were not even considered for starts in the big league.
"These days if you are a young referee in the country, and you have the talent for it, you'd have to move to Sydney to make the most of it," Oaten said.
"The NRL squad is nearly a full-time squad, training daily out of Telstra Stadium."