‘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

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Sport - By Fiona To­mas

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

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