‘When I do the match, I’m the same as any other ref­eree’

Sara Cox is at ease be­ing the first woman in charge of a Premier­ship-level match, writes Kate Rowan

The Sunday Telegraph - Sport - - Rugby Union -

Sara Cox would rather not de­fine her­self as a woman in the man’s world of rugby ref­er­ee­ing even as she be­comes the first fe­male to of­fi­ci­ate at a match be­tween Premier­ship sides to­day. When she runs out at the Ri­coh Arena this af­ter­noon, as Wasps take on Northamp­ton Saints in the Premier­ship Rugby Cup, she sees the fix­ture as no dif­fer­ent to any other game she has of­fi­ci­ated. “When I do go into the match I am a ref­eree, I am not Sara, I am not fe­male, I am just the same as any other ref­eree that would be out there this week­end,” she said.

Speak­ing to the 28-year-old who is the Rugby Foot­ball Union’s first cen­trally con­tracted full-time fe­male ref­eree, it is clear that she takes al­most a gen­der-blind ap­proach to her job.

“I don’t see this as a gen­der-defin­ing thing. I am lucky enough to train with 14 men, I learn from those guys who are at the top of their game, but what I also get is the op­por­tu­nity to work with some of the top fe­male ref­er­ees in the world,” she says.

“For us as a com­mu­nity, we are all ref­er­ees, I could speak to Wayne Barnes about my game and it would be no dif­fer­ent to if I spoke to Joy Neville from Ire­land or Hol­lie David­son from Scot­land. We are all in it for the same rea­sons and are all do­ing the same things.”

Sex­ism is an ever-present topic when women in sport are dis­cussed but this is some­thing Cox has never ex­pe­ri­enced in rugby and per­haps this colours her view.

“I have never di­rectly heard any sex­ism. I think in all walks of life you will come across things like sex­ism, I used to work in a call cen­tre and I ex­pe­ri­enced all sorts of things. If some­thing like that [sex­ism] did come up, that is some­one else’s opin­ion but I have not heard any­thing so far.”

Cox is also keen to em­pha­sise she does not be­lieve there are dif­fer­ences in the chal­lenge fac­ing a fe­male ref­er­ee­ing elite men com­pared with what the likes of Barnes or JP Doyle would face. “I don’t think the chal­lenges are any dif­fer­ent for me to what my male coun­ter­parts would have,” she said.

The Devo­nian has of­fi­ci­ated at the high­est level of the women’s game in both XVs and sevens, in­clud­ing at last year’s Women’s Rugby World Cup, the Rio Olympics, the Com­mon­wealth Games on the Gold Coast and the World Sevens in San Fran­cisco in July. And, un­like many coaches who feel there is a dif­fer­ence be­tween how to ad­dress male and fe­male play­ers, the ref­eree does not see the gen­der of the play­ers she is work­ing with. “I speak to male and fe­male play­ers as they are hu­man be­ings, their gen­der makes no dif­fer­ence to me,” she says.

“I was lucky enough to ref­eree a women’s match last week­end and I com­mu­ni­cated with those play­ers just as I would in a Cham­pi­onship game. To me, those peo­ple that are on that pitch are play­ers of rugby rather than be­ing specif­i­cally of a gen­der.”

Fur­ther­more, while the likes of Neville, who be­came the first woman to ref­eree in the Euro­pean Chal­lenge Cup and the Pro14, have spo­ken about be­ing told that their gen­der could limit their ca­reer op­por­tu­ni­ties, this is some­thing Cox has never en­coun­tered. “No one has stopped me and said you will never do this or that is not pos­si­ble,” she said.

“The RFU have been very sup­port­ive of what I have been try­ing to achieve. I never en­vis­aged this hap­pen­ing when I first started my course 11 years ago but I have had sup­port along the way to al­low me to keep pro­gress­ing.

“No­body has put any­thing in the way of me to say ‘no you can’t do some­thing’. There is no rea­son for me to stop try­ing.”

First whis­tle: Sara Cox takes charge

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