Trail­blazer ref­eree says equal­ity fight must be stepped up

Fe­male of­fi­cial to make his­tory in men’s match Women In Sport chief lauds ‘real break­through’

The Daily Telegraph - Sport - - Rugby Union - By Kate Rowan and Ben Rumsby

An oth­er­wise un­re­mark­able in­ter­na­tional rugby match between Fin­land and Nor­way to­mor­row marks a ma­jor step in the storm­ing of the all-male bas­tions of sport as a wo­man takes charge of a com­pet­i­tive men’s in­ter­na­tional match in Europe for the first time.

Al­ham­bra Nievas, 34, from Granada in Spain, will ref­eree the Con­fer­ence Two of Rugby Europe, and joins an ex­clu­sive – but grow­ing – club of fe­male of­fi­cials who have bro­ken through sport’s tough­ened glass ceil­ing.

They in­clude Bib­iana Stein­haus, the first wo­man to ref­eree in the Bun­desliga; Sian Massey-ellis, the first as­sis­tant ref­eree in the Premier League; and Jen Wel­ter the first fe­male coach in the NFL.

Aus­tralia’s Belinda Slee­man is set to be the first wo­man to of­fi­ci­ate at the Rugby League World Cup, which be­gins in Mel­bourne this month.

The Foot­ball As­so­ci­a­tion of Nor­way, mean­while, last week an­nounced its male and fe­male in­ter­na­tion­als would be paid the same, fol­low­ing in the foot­steps of Lewes FC this sum­mer.

Nievas’s achieve­ment was hailed last night as “a his­toric mo­ment” by Ruth Hold­away, the chief ex­ec­u­tive of Women In Sport.

She told The Daily Tele­graph: “It builds on the mo­men­tum cre­ated over the sum­mer where we saw view­ing fig­ures, vic­to­ries and the vis­i­bil­ity of women’s sport at an all­time high. It’s a real break­through as rugby is tra­di­tion­ally a male­dom­i­nated sport.”

Rugby Europe has also named Ire­land’s Joy Neville as ref­eree in the men’s match between Nor­way and Den­mark on Oct 28.

Neville was the first fe­male as­sis­tant ref­eree in Euro­pean club rugby when she of­fi­ci­ated Bath and Bris­tol’s Chal­lenge Cup fix­ture this year and she reg­u­larly acts in the same ca­pac­ity in Pro14 fix­tures.

A World Rugby spokesman said: “It is very en­cour­ag­ing to see Al­ham­bra and Joy come through the ranks to of­fi­ci­ate at the high­est level. It aligns with World Rugby’s 2017-2025 women’s plan which, sets out to fur­ther op­por­tu­ni­ties for women in rugby from the pitch to the board­room.”

Cam­paign­ers point in par­tic­u­lar to the power of role mod­els – and cite the num­ber of women box­ing in Eng­land as hav­ing dou­bled since Ni­cola Adams won gold for the first time at Lon­don 2012, with 48,000 now box­ing reg­u­larly.

Nievas, who barely knew rugby ex­isted un­til she was study­ing en­gi­neer­ing at univer­sity in Malaga, said that she hopes her achieve­ment will lead to more op­por­tu­ni­ties for fe­male ref­er­ees at the elite lev­els of rugby – and other sports.

She be­gan play­ing when friends asked whether she wanted to play for the univer­sity rugby team – she did so out of cu­rios­ity, and im­me­di­ately took to the game.

Then, af­ter prov­ing good enough to play for her coun­try, in­clud­ing in the Six Na­tions, an­other friend asked her to help ref­eree chil­dren in a sum­mer camp.

From there grew a highly dec­o­rated ca­reer that in­cludes of­fi­ci­at­ing the women’s sev­ens gold-medal match between Aus­tralia and New Zealand at last year’s Olympics and a Rugby World Cup semi-fi­nal in Au­gust.

She was also an as­sis­tant ref­eree for Novem­ber’s men’s

Test between Tonga and the United States.

Nievas said: “The most im­por­tant thing is not to be the first but that this con­tin­ues and that we keep mov­ing for­ward. It is an hon­our and I ap­pre­ci­ate the com­pli­ment and trust in my abil­ity but, if this is only one match, I won’t be happy. This is a way to change our sys­tem – that this op­por­tu­nity is open to more fe­males in­ter­ested in hav­ing ref­er­ee­ing ca­reers.”

Nievas be­lieves it is only a mat­ter of time be­fore a wo­man takes the lead­ing role in a pro­fes­sional men’s club game, with her, Neville and Eng­land’s Sara Cox – the first wo­man to be handed a pro­fes­sional ref­er­ee­ing con­tract by the Rugby Foot­ball Union – all be­ing strong con­tenders.

“We are mak­ing steps. I think it is good to do this step by step.”

But she be­lieves ap­point­ments should be based on merit rather than gen­der.

“If a wo­man is good enough, why not? We can ref­eree a Euro­pean club game and then maybe more in­ter­na­tion­als. We are all chang­ing the mind­set be­cause, for a long time, it was women ref­eree women’s com­pe­ti­tions and men ref­eree men but, per­son­ally, I pre­fer that ref­er­ee­ing is not about gen­der, it is about per­for­mance and merit.”

As she steps into the his­tory books, Nievas will be part of an allfe­male of­fi­ci­at­ing team, in­clud­ing as­sis­tants Emmi Laine of Fin­land and Nor­way’s Sev­er­ine Lescofit.

She ad­mits that women are not as fast as men. But she is con­fi­dent women can over­come that.

“Step­ping up into men’s high­level com­pe­ti­tions is a chal­lenge be­cause, phys­i­cally, your fit­ness has to be at the level of the play­ers in the game. Be­ing a wo­man, it is a lit­tle bit dif­fer­ent be­cause we are not as fast as the men. This is a re­al­ity. So, if we want to ref­eree high level in­ter­na­tional men’s games, you have to be re­ally fit.

“If your fit­ness is be­low the level of the game, your mind will not be as fresh and, when your mind is not fresh, your de­ci­sion-mak­ing will not be as ac­cu­rate. This will be the point as a fe­male ref­eree you re­ally have to work on.

“We, as women, need to train ex­tra hard to reach that level. Sara Cox from Eng­land is train­ing with the male ref­er­ees. This a chal­lenge for her as she needs to be with them. She made it, it is noth­ing im­pos­si­ble.” But there re­mains a stark warn­ing from Women in Sport. Hold­away said: “There is still a long way to go in the fight for equal­ity in sport – 1.6 mil­lion more men are play­ing sport than women once a week in Eng­land and only 17 per cent of qual­i­fied coaches are fe­male. Half of sport’s gov­ern­ing bodies are fail­ing to meet the tar­get of 30 per cent women on their boards and only 24 per cent of those di­rect­ing elite sport pro­grammes are fe­male.”

Build­ing on her Chal­lenge Cup ex­pe­ri­ence from last sea­son, Neville will be an as­sis­tant ref­eree in the Cham­pi­ons Cup sec­ond round Mont­pel­lier and Ex­eter match, the week be­fore mak­ing her de­but as ref­eree in a men’s in­ter­na­tional.

‘It builds on the mo­men­tum cre­ated over the sum­mer for women’s sport’

Push: Al­ham­bra Nievas says more women must of­fi­ci­ate male games

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