Paul McBlane, one of the original referees in the united NRL competition, has died after suffering a heart attack.
Former NRL referee Paul McBlane has died at the age of 53.
It's understood McBlane suffered a heart attack.
McBlane was one of the game's top referees in the 1990s before being forced to retire because of heart problems.
"He died in his sleep Tuesday night - he just never woke up," McBlane's best friend Duane Bennett told Rugby League Week.
"He lived with my family in Sydney and was to marry my sister-in-law.
"We are all devastated - he was a champion bloke."
As a mark of respect, referees at this weekend's Auckland Nines will wear black armbands.
McBlane officiated in 97 first-grade matches, having made his debut in 1994.
"He was one of the original NRL referees," league whistleblowers' boss Tony Archer said.
"His referees number was 10 - meaning he officiated in the first round of the National Rugby League competition in 1998.
"He was also one of the first full-time referees.
"The thoughts of the entire refereeing group go out to Paul's family."