Helen O’Reilly becomes the first female referee to join IRFU National Panel

Appointment comes after an impressive performance at the Women’s World Cup

At this stage rugby referee Helen O'Reilly doesn't want to think of playing an official role in Pro12 or European Champions Cup matches. Becoming the first female referee to be appointed to the IRFU National Panel will do just fine for now.

The 39-year-old from Clondalkin, the youngest of eight girls and now living in Ashbourne, will take charge of matches in Division 2A and 2B of the Ulster Bank League from January.

“The phones haven’t stopped. They’ve been hopping all day,” she says. “I’m delighted about this. This is my fourth season. I played rugby for 13 years, with Ashbourne initially and then St Mary’s and went into the refereeing pretty much after I retired.

“When I started I went in with the mindset that I was just a referee, not a female referee. If you started thinking of yourself self in another bracket, you could feel intimidated. “


The appointment comes following an impressive performance in the Women’s Rugby World Cup in France as well as ongoing development through the IRFU’s appointment system.

Assistant referees

The IRFU National Referee Panel provides referees and officials for the AIL matches as well as providing assistant referees and officials for matches in the professional Guinness Pro12 and European Competition.

“The lads are fine,” she adds. “They don’t notice the difference if you are male or female. My first National Panel game will be in January. We haven’t got the fixtures yet but that won’t be too long.

“The way I see it is that it’s a step up. The laws are the same but the games are probably going to be faster. Some girls I met at the World Cup would referee men’s games so it is very exciting. I am delighted.”

Buncrana's Sadie Duffy from Boxing and Dublin's Carol Metchette in hockey are two other female officials in charge of men's matches in Ireland with O'Reilly now the first trailblazer in rugby.

“The support I got today has been great and everybody seems to be behind it,” she adds.

“I can’t wait for the New Year. The National Panel is a feeder for assistant referees in Pro 12 and European Champions Cup but at the moment I’ll keep my feet firmly on the ground.

“Since coming back from the World Cup this has been my ambition, so I’ll take it one step at a time and see how it goes.”

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson is a sports writer with The Irish Times