HOW REFEREEING MADE ME EXCITED TO GET BACK ON THE RUGBY PITCH
by Holly Myers, LAPS Partnership Manager for London & South of England
Stepping onto a cold, wet, uneven, community rugby pitch in February this year, was the most nervous I have felt before a rugby game in a long time. It was game day with a twist. It was my first match in charge as a referee.
My partner did his rugby refereeing course in September that same season, while I was in France playing at Stade Toulousain. Within weeks, he became a referee nause, supplying me ample ammunition to take the mickey out of him.
I had always coached rugby, always loved it, but had never given refereeing a second thought. Rugby referees are always treated with the utmost respect, it’s always ‘yes Sir, no Sir, three bags full Sir.’ However, I always thought what a complicated job it must be. As a winger, I didn’t think I had ever fully understood what goes on a scrum time or at mauls. Every time I had always tried to join a maul, I was normally barked at to ‘bugger off,’ by a forward trying to stay at the back to get one of those classic forward push over tries. I was back in UK for a week in the October and lo and behold, my partner booked me onto a two-day refereeing course, purely because he wanted to prove to me, the reason why he’s only been talking about refereeing for the last couple of months.
The RFU refereeing course is delivered and aimed at those starting their refereeing journey; whether they’re a parent coaching their kids U13 team, and they need to have a referee to take charge on a muddy Sunday morning, or a teenager just wanting to give it a go.
I found it quite humbling that there were so many people who wanted to pick up the whistle and help our community game develop and grow.
No surprises, I absolutely loved the course and quite quickly had to admit defeat and apologise to my partner, who had been subject to my multiple use of the old Inbetweener one liner of ‘Oooo referee friend!’.
Heading back to France after that course, I began to watch and think about rugby in a different way. I found myself watching the referee, whether there’s been any infringements at the breakdown, their positioning on the pitch, and how they interact on getting the best responses out of the players. I also started reading up about the trailblazers of women’s rugby refereeing such as, Joy Neville, Claire Hodnett and Sara Cox.
The only thought running through my head was, ‘well if they can go far with it, why can’t I?’
I knew that my playing experience, fitness and age would work in my favour, and from there I would just need to be given the right opportunity and seen by the right person.
It wasn’t until February when there was a break in my playing schedule, that I was able to fly back to England and prove to myself that I could referee. You can have all of the dreams and desires in the world but if you don’t actually try something then you’ll never know. I had joined the Hampshire Referee Society and been put in charge of Millbrook 2XV v Andover 2XV – a proper men’s community game. I had many apprehensions and concerns, but most of all it was not having the respect as a woman, in charge of 30 men. Not helping my cause was the fact that Hampshire’s refereeing kit is hot pink, coupled with my long bleach blonde ponytail, I was fully expecting to receive sexist comments and remarks.
When you referee, your whole demeanour changes into business mode as soon as you get out of your car. You are shown to your changing room, you go out onto the pitch, introduce yourself to the coaches who are normally running their teams warm up, you then do a pitch inspection, warm yourself up and then you brief both teams. This is probably the most nerve wrecking part, as you have all eyes on you, you are laying out your expectations for the game, and if you don’t referee and stick to those expectations, then you immediately begin to have problems. I ‘borrowed’ my pre-match brief from my partner and had rehearsed it about a dozen times the night before.
It instilled the confidence in me and my delivery to the men, that even though I was a woman, I knew what I was talking about in a male dominated sport.
As it was my first game, I was mic’ed up to a committee member from the society who was assessing me on the side line. As soon as I blew the whistle for kick off and then blew the whistle moments later for the first infringement of ‘in at the side’, I knew that I could referee. I even issued my first yellow card which subsequently resulted in a penalty try. Rugby is a complex game, as a referee you will selectively penalise offences in order to achieve a fluid, enjoyable and fair game. It is more a function of mass coaching and people management, which is something I had taken from years of coaching and working within the sporting world. After that game, both teams said I was the best referee they had had all season, and my assessor was thoroughly impressed. I could probably count on one hand, how many times I had complimented a referee on their ‘performance’ during my career, so I knew I must have done well. From then on, I was hooked.
Before COVID brought about a premature end to everyone’s season, I had refereed five matches, been assessed twice, been taken on by Clare Daniels, (another women’s referee trailblazer), as my coach/mentor, and decided that refereeing was the direction I now wanted to go in with my rugby. At 28 years old my body is still able to physically play rugby, but I see refereeing as a better option to give back to the game I have dedicated my life to, and the pathway for success seems endless and more prolonged. I’m now more excited than I’ve ever been to get back on the rugby pitch, as it’s a fresh journey of continual learning and growing, and a new perspective on the game.
Whether you are considering retiring or feeling lost having retired; there are always options within your sport to still be involved. As professional sports people, I think we take for granted of what we innately learn every time we take to the pitch, whether that’s for a training session, league match, or a grand final. For example, I didn’t know that I actually knew how to referee a maul and a scrum until I actually did it, making me realise I was subconsciously learning every time I watched from a far out on the wing.
Retiring doesn’t necessarily mean you are leaving your sport behind; in fact, you don’t even have to ‘retire’ at all depending on what path you choose to take. It could just mean your journey in sport is taking a different direction, giving you a new focus and outlook on how you now strive for success.