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Interview – Joy Neville, international rugby referee

After playing rugby for 11 years and winning a Grand Slam title, Joy Neville has recently taken up the whistle and been selected as one of 9 referees for the Women’s Rugby World Cup, taking place in Ireland this August. Joy has made sporting history and broken down barriers left, right and centre. In a recent interview, she chats to TLM about her switch from player to ref, women in sport, and the pressure that comes with being an international referee.

Tell us a bit about your career to date…
Playing wise, I played rugby for eleven years from 2002 to 2013, when we won the Grand Slam. After that, I felt I had done all that I had wanted to do, and itjust felt right to retire. Priorities changed. I met my partner, Simona, and I had already sacrificed so many years of family occasions, but that was all part and parcel of it. I felt I was ready for a new chapter.

I wanted to stop playing and just enjoy life and enjoy my weekends, not that I would’ve known what it was like to enjoy a weekend off back then! After my retirement, I was approached by a gentleman called Dave McHugh, a refereeing coach with the IRFU, who asked would I have an interest in becoming a referee. I said absolutely not, that’s not for me. But he convinced me to meet with him, which I did, and we agreed I would referee a match, an under 14s game. I did not enjoy it very much! I mentioned to him one of the reasons I retired was because of the commitment involved. Just give me eight or nine months to enjoy life and relax. So, he did, and it all started from there.

Now I’m here, with a lot of achievements as a female referee; the first woman to referee in the All-Ireland Division 1A and first female to officiate in the European Champions Cup. All of them I’ve experienced alongside my colleague, Helen O’Reilly, who has also been the first in many of her achievements, so it’s great to be up there with her, and of course not to mention that none of this would have been possible without the support and coaching by Dave and Peter Fitzgibbon (ex referee/current International TMO)..

What has been your greatest achievement?
Obviously, winning the Grand Slam is a massive achievement, but my main achievement as a referee was to referee Division 1A. And of course, everything else that came before that; getting an international women’s fixture, officiating the European Cup and officiating the Pro 12.

Even though I did all that, it wasn’t until I did the Division 1A in Cork that I felt a massive sense of achievement, because that’s what I wanted to do from the start. Even when I was approached first, I rang a gentleman, a senior prominent rugby official, and I asked him, ‘Before I start this, I wanna be the best I can be, but I’ve never seen a female referee in Division 1A. What are the chances, do you think, of that happening?’ He said, ‘Joy, not in my lifetime.’ From that moment I was sold, that was my goal.

What has been your greatest challenge and how did you overcome it?
I suppose, one of my main challenges would’ve been changing the male perception of a female in the middle. I’ve had so many experiences with older men saying to me, ‘Jesus, would you be alright with the speed there?’ or, ‘oh, you’re a female referee? That’s the first I’ve seen.’ I don’t get bogged down over it, or defensive. It’s a matter of changing their views and educating them, showing them that women can do just as good a job as the men, if not better. Overall the majority of my experiences have been positive.
I feel extremely grateful to have been given the opportunity to referee at such a high level.

Did you have any role models growing up?
Paul O’Connell would be a big role model. I admire the heart and effort he puts in, and he always leads by example. I think he’s a very charismatic character both on and off the field. Sonia O’Sullivan also, for her mental strength.

You’re almost four years retired now, do you miss playing?
I miss playing the matches, I don’t miss the training. That’s one of the main benefits of being a referee; I can train on my own time and I don’t have to be at a certain training session at a certain time. I work completely around my own schedule. As a result, I get to train with Simona as well, and that’s a massive benefit and something we can do together.

Is there a lot of pressure involved in being a referee?
I don’t think I fully understood until I was a year and a half into refereeing, the amount of game management that’s necessary. Where, as a player, if you have a breakdown, they have a line or scrum. But as a referee, there is no down time , you need to be switched on for 80 minutes. In the down time you must try to manage the players as best as possible. There’s little things you can always do to be contribute to the match. It’s mentally draining, even more so than playing for a full eighty minutes.

Looking back, do you reckon you would have been a better player with the knowledge you have from being a referee?
It’s funny, I didn’t know half the laws as a player, and I was playing international rugby. I think that’s definitely one thing we should tap into: getting a better relationship between referees and a team. We should be getting referees to work with teams, to educate them on what they’re definitely strict on, or more lenient on and even the way players should approach a referee and speak with them.
If I had the knowledge that I have now, I probably would have been ten times the better player than I was back then in terms of dealing with referees and even manipulating referees to get away with certain things!

Do you have any preferences when it comes to the types of games you referee?
I enjoy refereeing all games, although they are all very different. With the men’s game, when you speak to the captain, they know immediately how to change their behaviour to avoid repercussions. But with the women’s games, it probably takes that little bit longer for them to recognise that you mean business. I enjoy both, to be honest. The men’s games are faster, so it requires you to be quick on your feet, but the women’s matches can be just as demanding.

In Ireland, do you find women’s sports don’t get the recognition/attention they deserve?
I think it’s an issue that’s slowly but surely getting more recognition. I think that we, as females, need to support each other a lot more. I find that we always give out about lack of support for female sports like camogie, football and soccer. It’s easy to talk the talk, but to walk the walk and actually go to the games and support female colleagues is harder. That has to start with us for there to be a knock on effect.

What advice would you give young players starting out in rugby?
Hard work, commitment and heart. You can’t go too far wrong with that. Be critical with yourself because you’re never perfect and there’s always room for improvement. I’d also recommend people to try out refereeing. If anyone is interested in taking up the whistle, go to www.mar.ie and just try it out. It’s well worth it. I got to travel and see the world with it.

Article by: Christine Costello
Photography by: Eoghan Lyons
Make up and style: Fiona McNamara MUA and Fiona Hayes

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