Rugby World Cup: Groundbreaking Referee Learned Not to Fear Mistakes

by Pelican Press
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Joy Neville could not avoid rugby even if she tried. Her father and all four of her older brothers played rugby, including one professionally. She first picked up a ball in her backyard in Limerick, Ireland, when she was 8 in a scrimmage with her siblings, breaking her nose in the process.

But it would be nearly a decade before she played her first match competitively. The opportunities for women to play rugby just weren’t there, she said in a recent interview. After that first game, her brother Dave offered his advice.

“He said, ‘You’re going to play for Ireland very soon, and not only are you going to play for Ireland, you’re going to captain your country,’” Neville recalled. “‘But if you’re going to do that, we need to go down to the park and practice your tackle technique.’”

Neville would indeed go on to captain the women’s rugby team for Ireland, making multiple World Cup appearances and using her platform to boost women’s participation in the heavily male-dominated sport. This week, she’ll take that mission one step further as the first woman to be named on a men’s Rugby World Cup officiating panel. As one of the tournament’s television match officials, she will watch matches from a screen and be responsible for helping evaluate penalties and tries with the on-field officials.

She attributes much of her groundbreaking success to her support network, most notably her brothers.

“I grew up in an environment where they didn’t treat me any different,” Neville said. “There was no reason why I couldn’t do what they did. They never saw it as a barrier.”

Neville, 40, reflected on her journey to the pitch and how she uses labels as motivation.

The following conversation has been edited and condensed.

You played for Ireland’s national team for a decade before transitioning to a referee. Did you have to use a different part of your brain to go from player to rule enforcer?

One hundred percent. It’s such a difficult role. I was going to give up three months in. I really wasn’t enjoying it. I was coming away frustrated from an ex-player perspective — you just want to make the right calls for the players. They work and train so hard, and I feel that I have a role to those players to provide a platform for them to play.

What made you decide to keep going?

I was going out into my first few games with this expectation that I was going to get everything right. I was refereeing alongside referees who had over a decade of experience, and I thought I would be just as good as them.

The moment I realized that, I went into the next game without putting that pressure on myself and understanding that I wasn’t going to get everything right and I was going to make a lot of mistakes.

How did those mistakes shape your refereeing style?

I took the time to understand my mistakes, and the more games I did the fewer mistakes I was making because the same things were happening and I knew exactly how to react.

During one match, I was very snappy toward the players. I was the first female at this level, and if you’d ask me if the players had a different approach toward me because I was a female I’d always say no. But obviously I felt “yes” because I was being harsh and biting back.

I immediately realized I didn’t want to be that referee. I want to be the one that can be human, can be approachable, but have a right strike of balance.

Was there a particular moment when you found that balance?

I was reffing in the British and Irish Cup in England on International Women’s Day. A male player was laughing, and I knew exactly what I was going to do. I was prepared for it. I stared at this individual as he’s smiling at me. That silence turned into more silence and discomfort. You could cut the tension with a knife. His smiling face eventually turned embarrassed.

I smiled and I said, “We’re good to continue, aren’t we?” I gave a slight wink, and he smiled back and he goes, “Fair enough.”

You now have a decade of refereeing experience under your boots. How do you channel that energy to keep going?

I use it as motivation to go out there and work as bloody hard as possible to prove that we need to drop the tags and labels of gender, color, size, sexuality. It’s just about individuals in an environment doing the job to the best of their ability, but to the standard necessary. Nine times out of 10, those guys come up to me afterward and say, “Wow, when’s your next game? You’re brilliant.” And for me, that’s the reward.

How do you stay grounded?

I don’t fear mistakes anymore. I used to fear them. I saw them as a weakness. But in fact, I now see it as such a strength because we’re not perfect. We’re human; we’re not going to get everything right. I try to reflect and not to react, or take that breath.

How do you prepare for an event like the World Cup?

It’s a seven-month plan, so I started my plan months and months ago. Right now, it’s down to the nitty-gritty of your communication, your process, and delving into the unique situation and making sure no stone is unturned. I just want to ensure that I have every situation in my mind in my plan. You have to go into this World Cup with your tools sharpened.

And you’ll be the only woman there with that toolbox. Does that increase the pressure at all?

I’m there on merit, and I don’t want to put too much attention or stress on myself because I am the only one, but certainly I am very aware of the fact that I have a role in that. I have a responsibility to perform in order to ensure that more opportunities come to those who are deserving of them. My priority is to come away with no regrets.

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