A born and bred Southland (and proud of it), as the middle child of nine, he played his rugby as a fullback and wing for Southland at Under 18 and B level. He began refereeing with the Southland Referees Association in 1984 and combined that with 17 years in the New Zealand Police Force before turning professional. He refereed his first professional game in the Super 12 in 1996 as well as Sevens, between 1976 and 1984.
His first taste of test rugby was in 1995 when he was a test touch judge for the first time in a match between Australia and Ireland in Brisbane. He took charge of his first Test on October 23 1994 with the Rugby World Cup qualifier between Hong Kong and South Korea in Kuala Lumpur, a match the Koreans won 28-17. In 1996, Paddy became the world's first professional rugby referee and was appointed to referee the first ever professional match - the Hurricanes v the Blues at Palmerston North.
Paddy is New Zealand's most capped Test official with 221first class games and 38 test matches to his credit. A highlight of Paddy's career was when he was chosen to referee his first Rugby World Cup game in 1999. He drew the opening match of the 1999 tournament when Wales beat Argentina 23-18 at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff in front of a crowd of 70,000 and millions watching on TV.
In his biography, "Whistle While You Work" (2003) Paddy lifted the lid on some of rugby's best stories. How he fought back from the low point of the 1999 World Cup match to the success of refereeing England vs France in the World Cup semi final in 2003 is both intriguing and inspirational.
Paddy was named New Zealand Rugby Union referee of the year 5 times, 1995, 1996, 1998, 2002 and 2003.
In 2005 he was appointed an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit in recognition of services to rugby as a referee in the Queen's Birthday Honours List.
At the 2007 RWC, Paddy was made Rugby World Cup Chief Of Officials and was the head of IRB referees until March 2012.
Paddy served as World Rugby High-Performance Referee Manager in 15-a-side from 2005-2012 and from 2012 is the current World rugby High-Performance Referee Manager in Sevens.
- After Dinner
- ’The Life of Paddy O’Brien the Rugby Referee’
- ‘Controlling the Controllables' - in this presentation Paddy addresses: "we worry about so many things in our life that we can’t control when we need to spend so much more time on what we can. Why worry about if it is going to rain tomorrow when we can’t control that, just concentrate on what you know you have responsibility for". Paddy relates how in his early career in refereeing he worried about things he had zero control on and yet now he only ever concentrates on things he has control over and his life is so much easier.