‘It’s not about me, it’s the next generation’
Sara Cox is happy to break down barriers as a referee – but says it is more important to inspire others to follow her
Sara Cox is used to attention. For years, she was batting away people who confused her with her namesake radio DJ, but more recently she has been making headlines in her own right.
Within four years of becoming the first centrally contracted female referee with the Rugby Football Union in 2016, her CV is laden with trailblazing moments: the first woman to take charge of a fixture in a men’s Championship match; the first appointed for a Premiership Cup fixture; and, most recently, the first female official chosen for a Gallagher Premiership fixture. All by the age of 30.
Cox belongs to a golden era for female referees who are excelling at the higher echelons of the professional game. Ireland’s Joy Neville, Spain’s Alhambra Nievas and Scottish official Hollie Davidson have all featured in either men’s European international or club matches in some refereeing capacity, but Cox is the leading light in England.
She has now officiated at two Premiership games in a week, working alongside Wayne Barnes for Bath’s meeting with Wasps at the Rec, then turning out alongside the same referee last Friday for Worcester’s meeting with Bristol at Sixways. The pair are in the same Premiership Rugby refereeing “pod”.
“I don’t think there’s anyone better to learn off,” Cox says of working with the world referee of the year. “The TV has started to twig that we’re the same people working together. Each week, the pod rotates around, which means we get some continuity in working with people and get to learn about what each referee wants.
“Barnesy will want something different to what someone else wants. Being able to mix those up gives you that range of people and personalities to work with.”
That is what Cox cherishes the most about her day job. She excitedly reels off the characters she mixes with in the refereeing world, which include part-time officials who, away from the pitch, are chief executive officers, engineers and teachers.
“Working with lots of different people allows me to look at the wider world outside of sport,” Cox says. “I think, ‘How can I transfer some of the stuff which is happening in the small, concentrated bubble of sport outside into a bigger world, where primarily at some point I’m going to end up back in?’ ”
Having played the game until her late teens, Cox laid the groundwork to start a women’s team at Cullompton in Devon, her local rugby club, and begged her rugby teacher to set up a girls’ team while at secondary school (“it used to be just me and this other girl who would turn up and run around for a bit, not really knowing what we were doing”). Given her track record, she was always destined to blaze a trail as a female in a traditionally male-dominated space and fell into officiating after numerous trials for the England Women team.
“I took a bit of a knock in one of them and I remember lying on the pitch and thinking, ‘I don’t want to do this any more’,” she says. “I don’t think that spark was there.”
Eager to remain part of the rugby community, Cox flirted with the idea of coaching, but “couldn’t even manage myself as a 17-yearold” and later discovered refereeing was where her real calling lay.
‘I’ve been caught in the middle of a ruck. I’ve had studs across the shin for getting too close’
As she progressed up the officiating ranks, balancing a nine-to-five job in a call centre – and later a waste management company – became increasingly difficult.
Cox’s debut as an assistant came in a historic week for female rugby referees in which Australian Amy Perrett became the first woman to take charge of a Super Rugby match after regularly running the lines in the southern hemisphere competition.
So does Cox have aspirations to follow in Perrett’s footsteps and take the whistle in a Premiership Rugby league fixture?
“To be brutally honest, it’s not something I’ve actively dreamt about,” she says. “To fixate, or focus on trying to say, ‘Right, my next accolade will be this’ is difficult because I’m not in control of those appointments. I’m not in control of my destiny when it comes to that selection process.”
It is this measured approach that keeps her grounded. “The fact that I’m female doesn’t mean I put any less effort in, it doesn’t mean I don’t get any fewer opportunities than anyone else,” Cox says. “If anything, it means I work even harder to prove that I can be there.
“I’ve been caught in the middle of a ruck before. I’ve had studs across the shin before for getting too close, but it’s not about me. It’s about the generation of girls behind me who say, ‘Do you know what? I’m interested in rugby because of her’.”
Headline act: Sara Cox as the first female assistant referee in a Premiership match