Helen O’Reilly on course to be first woman referee in Pro12

Former St Mary’s player has already refereed in AIL and Women’s World Cup in France

Earlier this year rugby history was made at Musgrave Park when Helen O'Reilly became the first woman to referee a men's All-Ireland League game. O'Reilly took charge of the Ulster Bank AIL Division 2B game between Sunday's Well and Kanturk.

She is cautious but hopeful of progressing again next year. Last week the IRFU promoted O'Reilly to their A panel, which allows her to be selected for All-Ireland League Division 1A games and to feature as an assistant referee in the Pro 12.

If she is selected for the Pro 12, O’Reilly will be the first woman from these shores to be involved in officiating at that level of professional rugby.

Claire Hodnett and O'Reilly were the only two referees from the northern hemisphere to officiate at last year's Women's World Cup in France, and Hodnett is also pushing her case in England.


Hodnett is one of around 60 women in the UK who referee adult men’s rugby, but as yet Premiership Rugby is an all-male domain.

First taste

O'Reilly, who had playing spells at Ashbourne and St Mary's, also refereed in the Women's Six Nations, but Division 1A will be her first taste of a level of rugby that has professionally contracted players involved. Academy players regularly turn out.

“I was promoted at the end of this season. I don’t know what way it’s going to work,” she says. “I’ll be up to Division 1A of the AIL and then after that I don’t know. It is the panel for those games [Pro12] games alright.

“The panel for the 1A games feeds up in to the Pro 12 games. For me going up to 1A is a huge step up from Division 2A and 2B. So 1A is going to be my focus this year and anything else would be a bonus. But getting the promotion to that panel is a huge step up.”

She is one of 20 names on the A panel, with all of the others being male officials, and while she is guarded in a one-match-at-a-time way, the names will be among those asked to assist in the Pro12 next season.


“Myself and Claire Hodnett went to the World Cup. She does men’s matches there in the UK as well,” she says. “As far as I know, she went on the RFU national panel last year. It wouldn’t be the Premiership but she is on the panel. “

That leaves the Irish referee in a position to become the first woman to be involved in a close to top-level professional rugby match.

“That’s right,” she says. “It would be fantastic. But I would never fall into the trap of saying that’s what I’m looking for because my focus is the game next week and the game after that. I’ve very much kept my ambitions on the next game.

“I’ve always been asked if you want to go into the Pro 12 but I have to go through the process I’ve been doing. It has served me right so far. For me to get into the A panel is a dream come true. When I got the phone call a couple of weeks ago it was fantastic, but for now I’ll focus on the Division 1A matches.”

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson is a sports writer with The Irish Times