The woman with the whistle in the historic first game of Super Rugby Aupiki tonight has come a long way from the schoolgirl playing grid iron with boys in Canada.

At times, Maggie Cogger-Orr can’t quite believe her journey to become one of New Zealand rugby’s top female referees.

Now making Auckland her home, Cogger-Orr has faint memories of her Scottish-born dad watching Six Nations rugby on TV as she was growing up in Canada. And now she’ll make her international debut refereeing two tests in the women’s Six Nations next month.

She’s also on the cusp of realising an eight-year dream to be part of a Rugby World Cup – initially as a player, but now she hopes as a match referee when the tournament is played in New Zealand later this year.

But first Cogger-Orr has the honour of blowing the first whistle in Super Rugby Aupiki history, taking the day off her job as an accounting and economics teacher at Westlake Girls’ High School to control tonight’s opening game between Waitomo Chiefs Manawa and the South Island side Matatū in Hamilton.

Aupiki signals a massive step forward for female rugby players, and it’s also an important leap for the women officiating the games.

The game will have an all-women’s referee team, with Larissa Collingwood and Estelle Whaiapu the assistant referees, and Lee Jeffrey the TMO (television match official).

Lauren Jenner, who refereed at the Tokyo Olympic sevens, is also set to whistle in some Aupiki games – but at the moment, she’s isolating as a household contact to a Covid case.

Lauren Jenner (right) refereed the second half of the Chiefs Manawa-Matatū pre-season clash last weekend. Photo: NZR/Getty Images. 

Both Jenner and Cogger-Orr have also been selected to travel to the Northern Hemisphere after Aupiki, as match officials in the Six Nations championship. Jeffrey has been chosen as a TMO.

Only one New Zealander, Nicky Inwood, has ever refereed at the women’s Six Nations.

Cogger-Orr was the referee of last year’s one-off Super Rugby clash between the Blues and Chiefs, which led to the conception of the Aupiki competition.

“I was very privileged to ref that one-off game. The level of rugby, and how much of a step up it was, just blew me away,” she says.

“So when they said it was coming into its own, I was like ‘Wow imagine how good the rugby is going to be with extra training camps and more resources behind these players’. I’m so excited.”

Cogger-Orr and Jenner shared the duties at last weekend’s dress rehearsal between the Chiefs and Matatū, with Cogger-Orr controlling the first half. “I had friends watching who asked ‘did you hurt yourself and have to go off at halftime?’,” she laughs.

“It was exciting to finally get out there. Over the last couple of weeks we all had our doubts whether it would happen. So you have to give credit to the teams and New Zealand Rugby who’ve done their best to ensure these women get to play rugby.”

The start of the competition was delayed when Covid raged through the Blues camp last week, and now it’s through the Hurricanes Poua team, forcing the cancellation of their game against the Blues today.

And as for the rugby last weekend, where the Chiefs won 28-20? “It was outstanding,” Cogger-Orr says. “And it was quite satisfying to be back on the field.”

Ontario-born Cogger-Orr had a vague awareness of what rugby looked like as a kid, through her dad’s patriotic interest in the game. But as fate would have it, she ended up at a small high school in Ottawa which had “a bit of a rugby dynasty”.

“In my first year, I decided to play on the boys’ football – or gridiron – team. At practice, a lady came up to me and said ‘You’re the girl who plays football. Well I’m the coach of the girls rugby team, would you come and play for me in the spring?’”

The woman was Jen Boyd, who was hooker for the Canadian women’s team at the time (she’d later become Canada’s first female professional rugby coach).

“I was like, sure, but I was 12 and kind of scared,” Cogger-Orr remembers. “But I just fell in love with rugby. I loved how players made all the decisions, not the coaches, and it was so flowing.”

Maggie Cogger-Orr would love the chance to referee at the World Cup in NZ later this year. Photo: NZR/Getty Images. 

She kept playing both sports until she went to university, where she continued with rugby for the McMaster Marauders. She made the Canadian U20 women’s side, but in her third year at uni, she did her ACL with a simple sidestep.

While coming back from surgery she took up rugby refereeing “just for beer money”. But when she went back to playing, and did her ACL again, she made herself an ultimatum.

“I always wanted to come to New Zealand and do teachers’ college here, but I wasn’t ready to give up rugby yet. So I decided to play until I was 25, and if I wasn’t going to a World Cup as a player, I would give refereeing a go.”

So she played club rugby for the University of Canterbury and then College Rifles in Auckland, “but I reached as good as I was going to be. So I was 25 when I turned up to my first refs meeting.”

Now she wants to realise her World Cup dream – but as an official at this year’s tournament in New Zealand.

“If it happens this year, it will be awesome. But if not, the next one will only be three years away,” she says.

Bryce Lawrence, the national referee manager for New Zealand Rugby, knows how important it is to have women officiating at this level.

“Good opportunities come few and far between in the women’s competitions, so they’ve been desperately keen for an opportunity and they have one,” he says.

“Once it’s fully cranked up, Aupiki will provide referees a challenge above Farah Palmer Cup, and they need that to be extended.”

The Six Nations is the final major competition before a referee squad is selected for the World Cup in New Zealand in October and November, “so it’s great timing for them,” Lawrence says. 

“The World Cup is definitely a goal for us. There will be nine referees, six ARs and three or four TMOs, and we’re really keen to have people involved in all those roles. It’s even more special in your own country, where people can see you and be motivated to give refereeing a go.”

Six Nations rugby will be quite different to what Jenner and Cogger-Orr have experienced before. “There’s a lot of tradition, a different style of rugby and they get some pretty big crowds,” Lawrence says. “It’s all about adapting to a new environment.”

But rugby in Covid times has definitely made referees adaptable.

Jenner, who works as a digital marketing specialist for Downer NZ, makes her Six Nations debut controlling the Italy-Scotland test in Parma on April 23, before continuing on to ref on the World Series Sevens circuit. Jenner was also a rugby player until she injured her back at 16 and picked up a whistle.

Cogger-Orr will referee Wales v France at Cardiff Arms Park on April 22, and Ireland v Scotland in Belfast a week later. “It’s a dream to make my test debut in such a well-established competition,” she says.  

She’s excited, too, that her parents will be able to come from Canada to watch her – she hasn’t seen them for more than two years.

* The opening game of Super Rugby Aupiki between Matatū and Waitomo Chiefs Manawa will be live on Sky Sport 1 from 6.30pm. 

Suzanne McFadden, the 2021 Voyager Media Awards Sports Journalist of the Year, founded LockerRoom, dedicated to women's sport.

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