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Catherine's column: 'I will probably call you Sir'

BY Jack Tunney  ·  Friday Jun 28, 2024

Thank you, Sir, – I mean Ma’am. And then I would say “I am just letting you know now, before the game starts that I will probably call you Sir. I am sorry, I am not meaning to insult you, I am just used to saying Sir”. And generally, any female that refereed me was fine with this.

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There were not many. Claire Daniels in England, Dana Teagarden from the States….and then I am struggling a little bit. Tracey Pettingale in Kent flew the flag for refs of the female variety and now she even has a cup competition named after her. I am from Kent, and I don’t have one of those. Kent RFU how about the Spencer Trophy? The Spencer Cup? Sounds great doesn’t it?! In all seriousness, Tracey’s participation goes beyond refereeing to sports development and administration and hours and hours and hours of volunteering, this recognition is thoroughly deserved.

At the Rugby World Cup 2021 – played in 2022 – by women; I will start again. At the latest Women’s Rugby World Cup 100% of referees were female. At the most recent Women’s Six Nations, every referee was female. No men. Not in the middle. Not one.

I am passionate about promoting women’s sport, so why do these figures not make me smile? How fantastic that we are seeing so many females in the sport at the elite level. But isn’t this positive discrimination? Surely it should be the best person for the job. Shouldn’t it?

England’s fly-half George Ford remonstrates with Referee James Doleman after Wales’ during his attempted try conversion during the Six Nations international rugby union match between England and Wales at Twickenham Stadium in south-west London, on February 10, 2024. (Photo by Adrian DENNIS / AFP)

I have said this over and over for years. I have written articles about it in the past. I am even boring myself (I do this regularly) as to the frequency of my rants. The players are female – yes. But coaches, support staff, nutritionists, S&C coaches, media managers – the list goes on such is the development of the women’s game – they don’t have to be female, do they?

At a World Cup, the players are there because they are at the top of their game. It is the pinnacle of the sport. England, New Zealand, France and other nations include truly world-class rugby players. They deserve to be refereed by the best people for the job – whether they are male or female. Gender in rugby matters – it really matters (maybe that is an article for another day when I am feeling brave enough) but referee gender does not. Or does it?

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Positive Discrimination is for the most part illegal however something called Positive Action can be justified when organisations are trying to ‘Level the Playing Field’. And in the refereeing world, the playing field is still decidedly wonky. The government website states that “You can take proportionate action that aims to reduce disadvantage, meet different needs and increase participation.” Positive action in the workplace – GOV.UK (www.gov.uk). We need more female referees. We need more referees.

It is widely recognised that the presence of positive role models encourages participation amongst youngsters, and this is particularly impactful in women’s sports whereby the accessibility of female role models through wider media has been spluttering in the wake of their male counterparts. But that is starting to change, women’s sport is on the up, and that elusive Twickenham sellout I believe will happen within the next few years.

So maybe we should be utilising the platform to put our female referees under a humungous spotlight. To promote them, sometimes before they might be ready, to encourage the next wave. And to ensure that it is bigger. Perhaps it is ok for all referees at the next women’s World Cup to be female. Perhaps it is ok for all referees at the next Women’s 6 Six Nations to be female. We can call it deferred gratification.

But like the British weather, like the rugby lawbook, I keep changing my mind. I want young boys to turn on the TV, watch a game of women’s rugby and think “I can be there, I can be the referee in the middle of that match”. They won’t think that now because the women’s game is saturated with female referees. Are we in danger of socialising a whole generation of rugby participants into the belief that only women can ref women?

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Equally, I want young girls to turn on the TV and watch a game of men’s rugby and think I can be there. I can be there in the middle of the match. And they can start to think that because they might have seen Sara Cox or the blimmin’, brilliantly awesome Joy Neville ordering 30 grown men about. And they are fully entitled to be there having passed their fitness and speed tests just like any other referee. That is the way it should be. And if male referees can pass the fitness tests required for international rugby, then they, too, can referee England Women v New Zealand women.

LONDON – JANUARY 28: (L to R) Opposing captains Sandra Rabier (France), Catherine Spencer (England), Joy Neville (Ireland), Melissa Berry (Wales), Paola Zangirolami (Italy) and Lynn Reid (Scotland) pictured during the launch of the RBS 6 Nations Championship at the Hurlingham Club on January 28, 2008 in London, England. (Photo by Warren Little/Getty Images)

So, it is not like me to sit on the fence, but I think on this occasion I will have to. Women’s rugby should not solely be refereed by women, just like it should not solely be coached by women or commentated on by women. It sends the wrong messages.

Rugby is rugby. The same sport played by everyone (don’t get me started on the ball size debate!). It causes me slight anguish to say this because it goes against my rugby instincts but maybe, just maybe, World Rugby have it right this time.

We need our female role models to inspire our youngsters but, when those youngsters have learnt their trade and are breaking into the realms of senior rugby; when our referee pool has equalised, when the rollers have been out on the pitches and our playing field is level, we must, without hesitation, stop positive action. It should be the best person for the job. Full stop.

Written by former England captain, Catherine Spencer.

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