‘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
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