Without a referee, the sports we love wouldn't be able to continue.

All the stars, the sublimely talented athlete or the coaching genius, couldn't thrill us without the man with the whistle, enforcing the rules and ensuring everything runs as smoothly as possible.

Yet, the role is often looked upon unfavourably.

It has become synonymous with abuse, whether it's Premier League footballers haranguing the officials live on our TVs or volunteers giving up on the amateur game because of angry voices on the touchline.

Cumbria is a traditional hotbed of rugby league – but, as the number of players continues to fall, the county is also struggling to recruit referees.

Ahead of the new season, Super League referee Gareth Hewer, from Whitehaven, is encouraging enthusiastic rugby fans to take up his trade.

"We are desperately short locally, especially this coming season," he said. "With it being a summer season, we have people taking holidays, days off out and about etc.

"We are low on numbers each weekend, which could mean games are called off or referees are drafted in from other counties, which increases costs to clubs."

Hewer, 37, is entering his sixteenth season as a Grade One official and has worked at the top of the game, taking charge of the 2016 Challenge Cup final, international games and top Super League fixtures.

And he's now been joined by Workington's Brad Milligan, who recently qualified as a Grade One ref after just three seasons of covering professional games.

"This proves that it can be rewarding to get to the top," said Hewer, who has resisting going full time to continue working at Sellafield.

He began his career in the West Cumbria Youth League before making his senior rugby debut with an open age tie between Lowca A and Distington A.

"Refereeing is a different avenue to go down if you still want to be involved in the sport, either after injury or because you want to pursue a career as a referee.

"There are really good rewards, I have travelled to France on many occasions and more recently Toronto.

"It can be the best seat in the house."

Opportunities are available for those who want to embrace refereeing.

"I've refereed at all levels from amateur games in West Cumbria to the Challenge Cup final at Wembley.

"There are plenty of chances to progress if you're committed and determined.

"Being involved is great. It starts the minute you receive your appointment and continues during the build-up and preparation for the game.

"Walking out into the atmosphere at the stadium and being among some of the top players in the game is an incredible feeling."

However, it can be a different feeling in the amateur game. Hewer admits abuse has been on the rise but insists, overall, his experiences are positive.

"Locally, the abuse towards match officials started to increase, which was disappointing.

"Cumberland Amateur Rugby League Association has been supportive in stamping it out and there is things in the pipeline for this season, which should help all parties.

"There are more positives than negatives. I have met some great friends along the way from club officials to players.

"I’ve refereed in some great stadiums and arenas in front of some big crowds.

"It’s also a paid role so it can be pocket money for a young ref officiating youth games and in the amateur game.

"This obviously increases as you rise through the ranks.

"And it's a good way to keep fit and healthy."

Milligan and Hewer show the route to the top for aspiring West Cumbrian officials. At Grade One, referees can take charge of Super League, Championship and League One fixtures.

Grade Two officials cover Academy and League One while National Conference League games can be covered by Grade Three referees. Amateur officials are ungraded.

Hewer said: "Appointments are done on a weekly basis and are performance related so there is some sort of accountability.

"It’s all down to performance and monitoring through assessments.

"You are allocated a fixture at your grade and your performance will either be assessed by a live assessor or reviewed by the match official department at the Rugby Football League.

"They give feedback to you on performances, which determines if you get another fixture or even promotion.

"In Super League, I have a reviewer. We both review the game and have feedback within 24 hours of the fixture being completed."

Cumberland Rugby League Referees Society is running a match official course in February.

Hewer hopes others will follow in his footsteps, helping to keep the game alive in West Cumbria.

"Hopefully I can inspire people locally," he said.

Anyone interested in taking part in the course, should contact Cumberland Rugby League Referees Society via Facebook or Rob Jones by email at robpjones@hotmail.co.uk