Black Ferns fullback Selica Winiata is aiming to achieve a rare double – refereeing international rugby while still playing the game at the highest level
For the first time in her long, accomplished rugby career, Selica Winiata had to pack her bag a little differently when she headed to the Oceania Sevens in Fiji.
“I didn’t have to worry about packing a mouthguard,” the Black Ferns mainstay says. “But then I had to remember to pack a whistle.”
It was the first time that Winiata, a veteran of 40 tests for the Black Ferns and a former Black Ferns Sevens star, had ever refereed at an international tournament.
“In the warm-up, I didn’t have to worry about hitting a rugby ball or tackling anyone,” the 32-year-old says. But she had to remind herself not to get accidentally caught standing in the line of a pass.
And for the first time in her career, Winiata was told she could slow down on the rugby field.
“That’s not something they say to a lot of rugby players,” the speedster fullback laughs. “I watched a replay of a game that I reffed, and one of the commentators mentioned he’d never known a ref to actually be faster than the players.
“At least I set a good impression that I can keep up on the field! But I’ll take that advice on board and slow down a bit.”
Winiata is happy to take any critiques in her burgeoning career as a rugby ref. She only wants to improve with every game.
Because it’s her ultimate goal to blend both of her rugby roles, and play international 15s in the winter, and referee in the women’s World Rugby Sevens Series in the summer.
The Palmerston North police officer reckons she’ll be able to balance the two – but only if the officiating doesn’t impinge on her playing career.
Because Winiata is far from retirement. The try-scoring record-holder in the Farah Palmer Cup has her sights set on lining up for the Black Ferns at the 2021 Rugby World Cup, being played in New Zealand for the first time.
She’s not entirely sure, but she thinks she could be the first international player to referee and play at the elite level of the game at the same time.
“I don’t know of anyone who’s actually done both,” she says.
Winiata had been looking for another pathway in which she could best give back to the sport. “While I’m still active, I want to be involved in rugby as much as I can,” she says. “And I saw reffing could give me that opportunity – to be out on the field, just in a different uniform in a different role.”
So far, Winiata has refereed at three sevens tournaments – two at secondary school level, and last weekend’s Oceania Olympic qualifying series in Suva. So far, she says, so good.
“It’s great to get feedback after each of my games. There hasn’t been major work-ons, but critiques of small parts of my game to make it better for me. Taking their advice on board and then going straight back out and trying it is really important to me,” Winiata says.
There have been brief moments, she admits, when she has forgotten she’s not playing the game.
“There were a couple of times where I’ve gone ‘Ooh no, actually I’m the ref, I’m not going to make that tackle’. And ‘I can’t even touch the ball, I need to get out of the way of that pass’,” Winiata laughs.
“It took me a couple of games to realise I needed to run referee lines, not player lines.”
Winiata reckons her day job will help her handle the hard knocks.
“The ref always gets blamed for a lot. I don’t see it being a whole lot different from my job as a police officer. You’re always going to be criticised,” she says.
“Your job out on the field is to try and control the game. You need to let it play out as much as it can, but there are times when you need to take control.
“The biggest thing as a ref is that you’ve still only got two eyes. When there are 14 players out there, there’s a lot happening. It’s about being able to adapt and react as quickly as you can to put yourself in the best position to make those calls. So, the more time I get in the middle, the better I’ll get at it.”
Although she’s not being crunched in a tackle, Winiata thinks the role of a sevens ref can be just as physically taxing as when she’s playing.
“These days you can make up to five subs in a game, which can be beneficial as a player. But as a ref, there’s no coming off for a rest; you’re running the whole time. But I love being able to stay up the front in a breakaway,” she says.
New Zealand Rugby’s national referee manager Bryce Lawrence reckons Winiata has “massive potential” as a referee. She ticks all the boxes to control sevens at the highest level.
“You need to be fit and fast, and she ticks those boxes massively. Ideally, you need to understand the game, and be self-driven and motivated,” Lawrence says.
“You have to bring a bit of mongrel to refereeing now and then, and she’s got a bit of mongrel in her make-up. Normally players who become refs tend to be quite nice when they start off. But at times you have to be a little not-so-nice.
“Selica has all the characteristics and understanding of what we need in high performance. All she needs to do is learn her craft, and we’ve seen already she’s a very quick learner. Even in one day, she can improve from the first game to the last game.”
Lawrence says there have been naysayers who doubt Winiata can both play and ref. “But we took the opposite attitude and looked at all the reasons why it might work,” he says. “Her 15 coaches – right from club to Manawatu and the Black Ferns – were really positive about her doing both, which made it even better.”
Among those not so happy with Winiata’s decision to give refereeing a shot are her Manawatū sevens team-mates.
At next month’s national sevens tournament in Tauranga, it will be “the first time ever” that Winiata won’t be playing. But she will be there refereeing. Manawatū, aiming for a three-peat of national titles, will be without their prized captain.
“When the girls heard about it, they said ‘Are you sure you can’t play for us AND ref?’” Winiata says.
“Look, you can’t play rugby your whole life. I want to be able to give back to the game in a different way and do my best at it. I thought now would be a perfect time to give it a go, to see how good I am.”
She thinks adding this new feather to her bow will also benefit her rugby.
“I think I’ll be able to view it from two different angles. I hope it will give me some appreciation of how a referee looks at a situation,” she says.
Lawrence says there’s been no better time for women to take up refereeing.
“The women’s game is going through the roof, and so are opportunities for female match officials,” he says.
Seven female referees from New Zealand will be officiating at national or international tournaments over the next two months. The average number in the past, Lawrence says, was two.
NZ Rugby’s most successful female referee, Rebecca Mahoney – who became the first woman to control both a Ranfurly Shield and Mitre 10 Cup match this season – is now in the United Kingdom to referee two women’s test matches.
Former sevens player Tiana Ngawati is officiating at the Dubai 7s Invitation tournament, and then at next week’s Ignite 7s in Auckland alongside Winiata.
Emily Hsieh is on the World Sevens Series circuit. The US college rugby player-turned-referee has just moved to New Zealand to become NZ Rugby’s first women’s referee development manager. “I believe we’re the only country in the world to have someone specifically in that role,” Lawrence says.
Hsieh will work on getting more women and girls into refereeing. This year there were 85 female referees in NZ Rugby (of a total 1813), up from 69 the year before.
“For some girls it’s about getting out of their comfort zone and trying something new. That’s what I’m doing,” Winiata says.
“I love new challenges and the pressure of giving something a go and beating the odds. It’s good to be able to express myself in a positive way that may inspire other girls, who once they’ve finished playing, will give reffing a go.”
She’s also thought of another way to get a whistle into the hands of some of her team-mates.
“At the last school tournament I reffed at, I heard a kid say ‘Ooh that’s Selica, she’s that Black Fern. Do you have to ref to be a Black Fern?’” she says.
“I should have said ‘Yes, actually you do’.”