Mary Pringle, writes about her experience as a young woman in the lesser-known about world of Rugby Refereeing.
‘How did you get into rugby refereeing?’ is a question I always get. My rugby origin story, however, is slightly different to what you would expect from most referees. I never began as a player. From a young age I’d been exposed to rugby, my dad being South African had a lot to do with it. It was constantly on TV, he’d bring me to local games and I’d always hear about rugby from him.
When I was 8 years old, I decided that I wanted to play rugby in school, I went to a very small school and the club was made up of about 8 boys who just wanted to run around and tackle each other. Nonetheless, I dragged a friend along and we became the only two girls in our “rugby club”. I spent the majority of trainings standing around and chatting to the coach or my friends, I simply wasn’t interested in the tackling and I didn’t really understand rugby at the time.
In 2009 my passion for the sport was sparked when the Springboks won the Tri Nations. I could name all the players in the starting line-up, and it was then that I chose which team in Super Rugby I would support. When the 2011 Rugby World Cup came around, I was beyond excited, we had rugby workshops in school, where I was always the one begging to play contact rugby or to learn how to tackle. Ultimately, despite my attempts, I couldn’t convince my dad to let me play contact rugby. There were no girls teams at the time, and he thought it would be too dangerous for me, so I continued to play touch rugby instead.
I decided at that point that if I couldn’t play, I would be a referee or a coach and I started asking anyone and everyone how to do it. I was determined to become the first female to be a head coach of a men’s team or referee a male test match. I also gave myself the goal of becoming a Level 1 coach and referee before I turned 16. When I moved to Singapore at 14, it was one of the first things I did, and I achieved my goal of being a qualified coach and referee before the age of 16.
From there it all goes so quickly! Coaching wasn’t for me, but I refereed my first tournament and loved it. The people, the game, and the environment – it was so welcoming, fun and challenging. I haven’t looked back since! I was very lucky to have had lots of support from the Singapore Refereeing society, who pushed me regardless of my age and gender. By the age of 16 I had refereed my first international sevens game between Singapore and Indonesia, and I continued to be given opportunities to participate at high level tournaments such as the HSBC Singapore Sevens.
When I moved to Edinburgh for university, rugby was still a big priority for me. I want to progress to a high-performance level and potentially vie for a career as a referee. I was lucky enough to be sent to Germany and the Dubai 7’s by Scottish Rugby, and my most recent achievement was being selected by World Rugby to referee at their Women’s Challenger Seven’s Series in Cape Town (granted it didn’t happen due to Covid).
My experience as a female referee has been extremely positive. There are always going to be negative moments or times when people don’t respect you, but I don’t think I’ve experienced that more than any other referee has. In fact I’ve been taken care of a lot, by my fellow referees and mentors, I’ve also benefited from positive discrimination, which allowed me to help with substitutions at a Women’s 6 Nations game and even to referee at Murrayfield.
From the beginning, I’ve always had the support of the rugby community. There have been countless occasions where I’ve had referees offer me advice and praise, and even spectators and players have come up to me and congratulated me or commended me, and not for being a female, but for being good at what I do. I’ve never encountered any hostility regarding my gender, and thankfully in rugby, respect is a value that everyone strives to uphold.
As for my dream of becoming the first female to referee a men’s test match. I’m okay with not being the first female, because I’ve seen what so many females before me have been able to accomplish. For a long time, I didn’t have women in the sport to look up to, but now there are so many role models, who are paving the way for girls like me. The hard work and determination it takes for them to reach professional levels is unimaginable, but seeing them there only motivates me, and I know that I will be well supported. Despite the competition amongst referees for the best games, we are still a team that supports each other and wants others to succeed, it is thanks to these supportive teammates that I’ve been able to accomplish so much.
For anyone thinking about refereeing, I can easily say that it’s changed my life. I am immensely grateful to be a part of such an incredible community and cannot recommend it enough. The people I’ve meet, the places I’ve been, and the challenges I’ve faced have moulded me into the person I want to be.
This article was written by Mary Pringle, who is currently a student at The University of Edinburgh. Please do get in touch with Mary or I if you would like to share your experiences, comments or views on the topics covered above.