Picture a pretty, petite, super-fit and uber-fast woman giving orders to a field of thirty, physically powerful men and you’ll be imagining a day in the life of a female rugby referee.
Becoming a rugby ref is not the most likely career for a woman but fascinatingly, it is fast becoming something quite popular. “I fell in love with the game,” says female ref Marlize Jordaan. “Refereeing is immensely challenging but when both teams and coaching staff express their gratitude and praise for a game well refereed – nothing beats that satisfaction!”
Jordaan has been refereeing South African rugby since 2001 and admitted that at first it was quite intimidating dealing with a field of men. “However,” she says, “I soon learned that the men respect you when they realise that you have a good knowledge of the game. I do believe women are challenged more and I embrace it. It keeps me on my toes and forces me to know the laws of the game and its true and fair application.”
Kim Smit and Eugenia Daniels have both refereed women’s Tests, and are pioneers in terms of South African rugby as they are the two out of the only three South African women who have refereed women’s Tests.
“I love rugby,” says Daniels. “My mom wouldn’t let me play rugby, and my dad was a referee, so it was the natural thing for me to do. I didn’t have to fight to be accepted; the ladies that went before me already had fought that battle for me.”
On an international level, female rugby referees made history in Dubai at the Rugby World Cup Sevens 2009 when top women referees appeared for the first time. Rapidly gaining more ground since then, the first woman referee to control a men’s rugby international occurred at the end of 2010 when Dana Teagarden from the United States was appointed by the International Rugby Board (IRB) to referee an international Test match between The Netherlands and Hong Kong.
This makes Teagarden the first woman ever to referee a senior men’s international match and set the stage for women to take these esteemed positions in the future.
South African female referee Kim Smit is affectionately called “Biker Chick” by her colleagues and refers to her biking as her downtime from refereeing and her career. Being married with two sons, Smit is the only female in her household but she says she wouldn’t have it any other way. “I never have to share shoes, make-up or clothes (except rugby gear). What more does a girl want?”
Asked about any embarrassing moments on the rugby field, Smit says “I’ve had my fair share – rugby poles falling into the field of play, props being stuck on my boots but the one time that really left me red in the face was when I tore my ankle ligaments last year and the players had to carry me off the field. As we passed the spectators one guy smiled at me and said: “Ref, rugby is nie vir sissies nie.” I wanted to punch him on the nose.”
“Being a woman and doing what I do,” continues Smit, “everything that has never been done before is a big deal. When I run onto the field I don’t think of myself as a woman. I’m a referee wanting to perform to the best of my ability. Players and spectators sometimes struggle with the idea especially when they disagree with a decision I make. It’s always because I’m a woman that they think I got it wrong. Players never expect much from me and once you’ve performed above expectations it’s always a good feeling.”
When asked what rugby position she would prefer to play, Smit confidently says: “No.9. I’ve always wanted to pick a fight with somebody twice my size.”
The South African Rugby Union (SARU) is on an aggressive programme to recruit newcomers to the refereeing ranks and has the correct structures and training programmes in place to get talented youngsters, male or female, to the top. Manager of referees, André Watson, says, “Promising young South African referees have an outstanding chance of officiating at the highest level once they had taken up the whistle.”
“There are quite a number of opportunities for women referees,” says Jordaan, “especially since Sevens became an Olympic sport. One of my goals is to be considered for International women’s Test matches.”
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