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’
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