Is 2018 the year we will see a woman referee calling the shots in the top tier of men’s provincial rugby? Taylah Hodson-Tomokino thinks so. 

It has already been a significant year for women in rugby. Twenty-eight Black Ferns now have professional contracts, we’ve had our first female Super Rugby play-by-play commentator, and two female referees have been included in the national squad.

And I pick that 2018 may also be the year where we see a woman officiate at a men’s national provincial match – not to tick an equality box, but based on merit.

Former Black Fern Rebecca Mahoney from Wairarapa Bush, and North Harbour’s Natarsha Ganley have become the first women selected into New Zealand Rugby’s high performance referees’ national squad. The national squad referees officiate at the Mitre 10 Cup, the Heartland Championship and the Farah Palmer Cup.

Last year, the number of men playing rugby decreased, but there was an 11 percent growth in female registrations. Women’s rugby has exploded globally since its inclusion in the Olympics, which has had a flow-on effect in referee development.

But why on earth would a female want to referee rugby? Well, for the same reason men want to. They love the game, it’s the best seat in the house, you keep fit, you build character, but above all, it’s a voluntary, necessary service to the community.

Ganley, the national squad’s latest female recruit, grew up in Northland and played in the same rugby teams as her brothers. She got to the age where there wasn’t a female team to play for, so she naturally fell in to refereeing to stay involved.

If we’re to see a woman officiate a Mitre 10 Cup game this year, it will be on merit.

She became the first woman to officiate a North Harbour premier men’s match last year and has continued to thrive in her refereeing career. She controlled the 2017 Farah Palmer Cup final and was appointed as an assistant referee for the Black Ferns v England Roses test match last year.

“Overall the attitude I’ve experienced when refereeing a game has been fairly positive,” she says of the reception she receives when officiating men’s matches. “If you go into a game thinking you’re better or worse than any other referee for any reason, then you’re only putting yourself at a disadvantage.”

Female referees around the world have the likes of Joy Neville and Alhambra Nievas to aspire to. Both have been awarded men’s international fixtures this year. And Neville, who played rugby for Ireland, became the first woman to referee a Pro-14 match – the European equivalent of Super Rugby.

Their appointments have been widely received as positive, but not everyone agrees with having female referees officiate men’s matches.

“Sure there are people who may not agree with females being a part of the game, but you can’t let other people’s opinions become your limitations,” Ganley says. “That’s how I deal with anything close to sexism – the actions and progress that females, players included, make today is going to shape how the future game is played. Why would you not want to be a part of a positive difference?”

Refereeing is a selfless act. Torrential rain, howling winds and freezing temperatures are just some of the conditions referees face early on a Saturday morning for the pure enjoyment of others.

But the non-financial gains from refereeing at a community level have great value, as Ganley explains. “Refereeing has put me outside my comfort zone countless times, which has made me grow as a strong and confident person. The people, travel and experience are great bonuses, but the one huge thing that I’ve gained from becoming a referee is self-acceptance.”

The view that women know less about the sport than their male counterparts is outdated.

The two women included in the referees national squad are more than capable of officiating at the next level. Both carry years of experience behind them, and their well-deserved admission into the national squad is reward for the hard work that’s gone on behind the scenes with referee coaches, fitness testing and law exams.

If we’re to see a woman officiate a Mitre 10 Cup game this year, it will be on merit.

New Zealand Rugby have been advocating equality, and have proven their dedication to the cause with the inclusion of Ganley and Mahoney. As women’s rugby continues to rise, having positive role-models at the forefront of female referees in New Zealand is key to encouraging more women to pick up a whistle.

Taylah Hodson-Tomokino is a former national BMX champion and Samoa Sevens rugby player, sports commentator and LockerRoom columnist.

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