When she retired from rugby back in 2013, having won 70 caps for Ireland, Joy Neville couldn't quite envisage what she would be doing three years later. One thing was for sure, though, she didn't see herself patrolling the touchline at Bath's Recreation Ground on a Thursday night in October at a European Challenge Cup game against Bristol, thereby becoming the first female assistant referee to officiate in a European rugby match.
“I most definitely didn’t see that coming,” she says, “but it’s been wonderful, such an exciting opportunity.”
The Limerick woman, who was a member of Ireland’s Grand Slam-winning side in 2013, had taken some persuading to get involved in officiating after she retired, but her progress since she refereed a schoolboys’ match in Limerick in December of that year has been rapid.
She has become the first woman to officiate in several competitions, including the British and Irish Cup, and on November 12th she will be the first to referee an All-Ireland League Division One game when she takes charge of Cork Constitution v Clontarf.
“Even though I’ve now officiated in Europe, that will mean just as much to me because it’s the goal I set out to achieve,” she says. “But I felt very honoured to be given the opportunity last week and I’m glad I did myself proud out there. I didn’t really think about it in terms of being ‘the first woman’, but after the game I was blown away by the publicity and the support from different people, so I suppose it hit home then. There were quite a few decisions that had to be made and I was quite happy with my performance. I think that’s probably why I got such a positive reaction, there were a few 50-50 calls and as it happens I got them right.”
“Most of the opportunities I’ve had have been quite high-pressure experiences, but especially this one with Sky showing the game – they have the high-tech equipment, they have the cameras covering every angle, so they can show what the decision should have been. And with those microphones picking up on everything, you have to be very careful about what you say,” she laughs. “But that’s part of your preparation too, predicting what may happen so that you use the correct wording when you’re speaking with the referee.”
Her experience has, she says, been nothing but positive so far, players responding to her much as she did to officials back in the day.
“They’re human, the players are human. Male or female, it’s about making the right calls, doing the best you can do. But you have to demand their respect on the pitch too and if you don’t players will tap in to that and they’ll push boundaries – although I have to say I’ve never come across anything like that.”
“Spectator-wise, I had a few older characters come up and make a few comments and you’d have to be sharp coming back at them to put them back in their place,” she laughs.
“But they’re of an older generation who aren’t used to female officials and that’s fair enough – the way I look at it is, go out there, show them what I can do, then let them make up their own minds. Helen O’Reilly [Ireland’s first top-level female referee] broke barriers well before I did, she paved the way for me and made it easier for me, I hope to do the same for younger referees coming through.”
It’s a familiar journey, she says, likening it to the one she took in her playing days. “It’s the exact same thing, just with a different hat on. In the early days if I had one person say to me, ‘oh, there’s a female Irish team?’, I had a hundred. And there’s nothing more offensive, really, because you work so hard to represent your country and there are some who don’t even know the team exists. But again, barriers had to be broken and the peak of that was probably winning the Grand Slam, we got so much positive publicity from that.”
The sport, then, still consumes Neville’s life, her day job that of rugby development officer in Limerick Institute of Technology. It’s less demanding now, though, she says.
“A lot more commitment is necessary when you’re a player, it’s massive, and that was the hardest part. You have a responsibility to your team-mates, you’re training morning and evening, and you have to be there otherwise you’re letting them down. That was probably why I retired when I did, family had to take priority at that stage. I never regretted my decision, it was time, but I missed the games something wicked and I missed my friends.”
“The great thing about refereeing is that I get to train on my own terms, I get myself ready for the matches. I go out and do a match, come home and I can still go for dinner or for a few drinks, there’s that bit more freedom there. The hardest part was taking off my playing cap when I started, not to be screaming for the ball,” she laughs. “It took a while to train the mind.”