Sara Cox has broken new ground as, at the age of 25, she becomes the first female match official to be given a contract to join the RFU Professional Game Match Officials Team.
On December 19th she will take charge of the Spain v Hong Kong women’s international and the aim is to officiate at the women’s sevens at the Rio Olympics next year.
She has been on an exciting journey since taking up the whistle as a teenager. “I grew up around rugby and started playing at Cullompton RFC, alongside the boys initially and then I found a girls’ side and moved to Exeter Saracens. I was playing out on the wing, got my county and regional honours and had two England trials before being injured, which was when I went on a refereeing course, got qualified and got stuck in,” says Sara.
“At 17, I had a year deciding whether to return to playing, but refereeing juniors and third teams I discovered I loved it. I was turning up as quite a young girl and it was essential to take people with me, to earn their respect. There would be 30 players looking at me, some of them thinking ‘I’ve been playing longer than you’ve been alive!’
“I moved up through the Devon Referees Society and got the chance to move on to the South West group, which brought the opportunity to cover National 3 South West matches. Then I jumped into the sevens circuit in 2013 and it was amazing to be taking charge at the Sevens World Series. I’ve had tremendously supportive employers in Coastal Recycling in Exeter, who let me have lots of time off to train and the MD has wholeheartedly backed me.”
Sara refereed the third/fourth play-off in the London Sevens New Zealand Women v USA and has taken charge of domestic men’s sevens and has earned a great deal of respect. “There is a lot of respect for match officials in rugby. You are there to guarantee a game and the players appreciate that, but to be offered a contract to train with the elite male referees, being put through my paces, is an amazing opportunity for which I’m so grateful.
“My biggest ambition is to referee in Rio and this contract will help enormously.”
“After that, I would love to see how far I can get, working as hard as I can to progress. As a referee you are in the best possible position, apart from that of the players. You get the atmosphere, the buzz. Of course, you get nervous but that’s positive, when you love what you are doing it’s all part of the package. We have reviews after every game on a one to one basis with our coach. It’s how you learn. You gain understanding from what happens in front of you, you are learning all the time. I love it!”
Maybe she doesn’t appear the archetypal rugby ref? “When you tell people you are a referee on the international circuit they are intrigued but my friends are very supportive and love coming to watch. I get as much support as I did as a player. Now being able to work alongside the guys who are performing at such a high level is just brilliant.
“I would love nothing more than to inspire other young women to become involved in refereeing. The opportunity is there, travelling around the world is great, the people you meet, the friends you make along the way, it’s all brilliant.
“My mum Jackie is my number one fan, my younger sister is quite proud of me, though of course she’d never admit it! My mum drove me everywhere, stood on a freezing hillside throughout my first match and still supports me in the same way now. I can’t thank her enough for her encouragement but the best way would be to get to Rio.”
Her contract runs until August 2016.
This article first appeared in the RFU Touchline Magazine, November 2015 edition. Reprinted with thanks.