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“Girls can’t ref”, nonsense.

There’s a lot of attention on girls’ rugby at the moment: The Daily Telegraph recently highlighted a rule discrepancy at Junior level between girls’ and boys’ rugby, and England international Rachael Burford has just launched her own rugby coaching business aimed purely at girls.

So, it seems pertinent to focus the latest ‘View from the Community Ref’ on some of the issues facing female referees at the lower levels of rugby, and specifically schoolgirl Young Match Officials.

A couple of weeks ago I was helping out at a club’s internal Ready4rugby event, as was 17-year-old Harriet, one of my Society’s up and coming YMOs.  Harriet is a very competent and confident communicator, but very early in the supposedly “friendly” event, she refereed a game between the club’s Colts and a ‘Baa-Baas’ team of 20-ish-year-olds.  The game was punctuated by constant swearing and questioning of every decision from both sides, reducing Harriet to tears, and was enough to deter her from refereeing any further games on the day.

It prompted Mrs Community Ref, who was photographing the game, to wonder why this age group of players considered this acceptable, when the same teams did not behave the same way towards either me, or another (male) YMO, in other games during the course of the day.  Why should ‘teenage testosterone’ be an admissible excuse for this kind of behaviour? What other difficulties does a schoolgirl referee face, and what can the school game, and the game in general, do to even out these considerable inequalities which still exist in the 21st Century?

Some of it comes down to simple terminology: we’re all guilty of using the term ‘schoolboy rugby’ from time to time.  Educating outdated terms out of our vocabulary is the catalyst for schools to think outside the traditional limitations of school sport stereotypes. Harriet attends a co-educational school with an excellent rugby (and sport in general) pedigree yet is the first girl ever in her school to be involved in rugby, whether playing or officiating.  Indeed, she took up refereeing when a male student used the words of the title of this article, rather than at the encouragement of the school.

The almost total absence of rugby in girls PE, except at the most elite schools, means that unless they have a brother/dad who referees and/or still plays the game, they are always going to have very limited exposure to rugby. Even when asked by girls desperate for them to include it in the timetable, some female PE teachers in single-sex schools are reluctant as they don’t know, or perhaps trust, the game themselves.  In the club game, the cut-off at age 11 for mixed rugby often means the majority of girls drift away from the sport.  This ‘brain drain’ has a knock-on effect for officiating: if girls don’t have a chance to play & get to know the rules into their teen years, how is refereeing going to cross their mind? 

With no full contact rugby at school level until January at the earliest, if at all this academic year, it’s an ideal opportunity for schools to put forward students of either gender to learn the refereeing ropes: RFU-accredited courses are inexpensive, and much of the theory is available online whilst we wait for practical opportunities to be permitted.   Similarly Union can learn much from the Touch game (which has mixed teams right up to veterans level), and which is currently a permitted rugby activity under current RFU Covid rules: Touch still requires referees, and the principles of player and game management are identical and (in a non-contact setting), often easier for younger officials to learn

There’s also still room for a change of attitude amongst the coaches and club officers. Many a time female officials at community level have turned up to referee, to be told by club staff ‘you know this is a cup game love?’, or ‘the physio room is through the back’, not to mention misogynist comments from the side-lines on anything from fitness to attire.  This extends yet further to club infrastructure and to matters as basic as separate changing areas: there is often only one referee room in a community club house and for a mixed/young TO3 this becomes at best awkward, at worst a safeguarding issue. Sometimes the attitudes even tip over into ‘#MeToo’ behaviour: even the highest profile female referees have sometimes been asked for their number by male players, and Harriet’s experience at even U16 level of age-grade rugby backs this up.

Very few top-level referees have worked their way right up from the lowliest community level to the Premiership, and even fewer are female:  Sara Cox is alone amongst her peers in having officiated at every single level of the UK game, and so even at just 30 has a huge collection of experiences to draw on for advice.  She says it’s absolutely permissible to cry when things have gone badly (preferably in the changing room after the game though) and sees it as a natural response where a male counterpart would be angry and lash out (verbally one hopes…). Sara admits to a tendency to catastrophise bad experiences on the pitch, perhaps more so than a male official, but this in her view enables her to turn these into learning points very quickly. She also says that one of the positive aspects of being a young female when refereeing boys, is the ability to empathise more easily and bring naturally better maturity levels (for the same age) to the game: girls especially at YMO level are often better at reading people and situations quicker than their male teenage counterparts.

So how does Harriet and her cohort progress from here?  Again, at risk of sounding like a stuck recording, it’s about education and awareness. The clue is in the title we give to these young people:  as qualified Young Match Officials they’ve done the training and passed the course; it’s a pathway taken by many high-level referees, it’s completely gender neutral, and it’s a thoroughly good grounding in the art of refereeing.  More clubs need to be aware of this, and accepting of this, as well as the infrastructure issues above, and maybe even send some of their young players on the course to see it from the other side.

And as far as Harriet and her colleagues are concerned,  Sara coaches people to be ‘comfortable with the uncomfortable’: a teenage girl confronted by 30 teenage boys will need to dig deep into reserves of confidence, humour and people skills.

And if everything else is crumbing around you, Sara’s final word of advice for a floundering female YMO: “Smile, it scares them!”

By Julian Edwards, The Community Ref

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