One of the first Black Ferns and a trailblazing ref, Nicky Inwood is playing a crucial role at this Rugby World Cup – rating the referees. Adam Julian reports.
The first game of rugby Nicky Inwood ever played was in the late eighties – a rather patronising Married vs Singles fixture in the small Canterbury town of Hawarden.
Fast forward three decades and the former Black Ferns hooker has one of the most important roles at the Women’s Rugby World Cup, a tournament already shattering records.
The Cantabrian is one of three high performance referee reviewers alongside Andy MacPherson, of Scotland, and Australian Wayne Erickson.
Their key role is to review every referee in each game of the tournament – an 18-strong all-female team of referees. The reviewers then rank the refs to decide who goes on to the play-off stages of the tournament.
Each referee is assigned two pool games, and play-off appointments will be made based on performance.
“It’s important we give each referee an equal chance to shine. Come play-offs it’s crunch time,” Inwood says.
“We start ranking the referees and it becomes cut-throat, which requires some courageous conversations. Some referees will be ecstatic they’ve advanced, others will be expecting more.
“We owe it to the game, spectators and players to get the best referees on the most important games.”
The trio of reviewers critique each referee’s performance against the World Rugby criteria.
“There are four key areas: safety, speed, space and set piece,” Inwood explains. “Our key role is to look at the decisions that are made so they are accurate, in context with the game, or literally not creating any high impact moments that are incorrect or may have an adverse impact on the game.
“Once we’ve done that, we have a debrief with the entire refereeing team because we’re listening to the comms throughout the game.”
In her playing career, Inwood was an important pioneer. In 1989, she played hooker for New Zealand in their inaugural match against the California Grizzlies. A year later she helped organise the ground-breaking World Rugby Festival in Christchurch. In 1991, she played all three tests for New Zealand at the first World Cup before shifting to Whanganui in 1992, where she started the women’s game in that area.
In 1999, Inwood had retired from playing, was living in Christchurch watching a secondary school match when the assigned referee didn’t show up. She was persuaded by a friend to step in at the last minute – and made such an impression she was offered another game by a Canterbury selector.
Inwood swiftly moved through the reffing ranks. In 2001 she refereed at the Hong Kong Sevens and in 2002 she was appointed to her first test match, USA v Netherlands, at the 2002 World Cup in Barcelona.
“USA won 64-0 so there was a lot of running,” Inwood reflects.
“I remember one of the forward coaches for America had coached Wellington in the NPC, and before the game met me and said, ‘Gosh we’re in for a good game today. We’ll be able to ruck hard at the breakdown.’ It was interesting to hear how Kiwi refs were perceived.
“I specifically worked hard on my fitness and didn’t drink for six months prior to the tournament. After the game my performance reviewer, Michel Lamoulie, a very esteemed reviewer from France, brought me two or three beers and I got as tipsy as ever.”
Evidently the American coach was George Metuarau, husband of New Zealand netball legend Waimarama Taumaunu. Their daughter, Tiana Metuarau, has also been a Silver Fern.
Inwood would go on to officiate 32 test matches, including four Black Ferns internationals. In 2008, she presided over the Black Ferns v Australia series and in 2013 took charge of two of three England tests. Two years later, Inwood controlled the World Cup semifinal between Australia and England and she was an assistant referee in the 2014 World Cup final, featuring England and Canada.
The undoubted highlight of her career was in 2007 when she became the first woman to control a test match at Twickenham. England versus Italy was the occasion.
“I arrived and was approached by a burly guy with a metal detector checking my bag for knives and bombs,” Inwood says. “Each referee had a bodyguard assigned to us and we were lectured for 20 minutes about what to do in the event of a terror attack. It was all a bit overwhelming for a small-town country girl.
“The game itself was a whirlwind. I remember the whole stadium was buzzing after the English men had played and won.”
England beat Italy, 23-0, in the women’s test while England thrashed Scotland, 42-20, in the male encounter. Johnny Wilkinson achieved the rare feat of scoring all four ways.
When Inwood retired in 2014, she had refereed 86 first class games – more than double the next best women. She officiated the 2007, 2011 and 2012 NPC finals.
“Refereeing a test match starts two days before the game. You look at clips to try and understand the strengths and weaknesses of each team,” she says. “Does one team maul all the time? Who are the key personalities and how can you better manage those people?
“On the day you should ideally be an hour-and-a-half early and get into the right mindset and physical condition. How you do that varies by personality. In the game you want to have a holistic viewpoint. You want to manage the game fairly, firmly, and ideally with as little interference as possible.”
What happens when things go wrong?
“It’s called a train crash in refereeing circles. Everyone has one and it’s important to learn from it,” Inwood admits.
“Mine was at the 2006 World Cup. I had South Africa and Australia in bright sunshine, and it was flow, flow, flow. The next game between Scotland and Wales was in the pouring rain and it was a shambles. I didn’t establish a good relationship with either team. It was stop, start, ill disciplined, just horrible.
“Every game offers different challenges, so the key to growing as a referee is adding new tools to your box to deal with new challenges that arise.”
Inwood considers herself lucky to have had consistent reviewers throughout her career. She’s been involved in high-performance reviewing with both New Zealand Rugby and World Rugby for five years.
“When I finished refereeing, I started coaching with the local association in Christchurch. I was asked to give feedback and because I’d been in a high-performance area, I reviewed on the same criteria I had been,” she says.
“It’s important for referees coming through the ranks that the processes are largely the same. If we’re all singing from the same song sheet there will be less surprises for referees as they advance up the chain.”
In addition to her rugby work, Inwood maintains a career as a vet and has a pet pig named Lily, who is house trained, can walk on a lead, gets porridge for breakfast every morning and lies by the fire when it is raining outside.
* It’s the final round of pool games at the Rugby World Cup this weekend. Saturday, Northland Events Centre, Whangārei – Australia vs Wales, 1.45pm; New Zealand vs Scotland, 4.15pm; France vs Fiji, 7pm. Sunday, Waitakere Stadium, Auckland – Japan vs Italy, 12.15pm; Canada vs USA, 2.45pm; England vs South Africa, 5.15pm. All live on Spark Sport (NZ game delayed on Three).