RFU and ACME Whistles aim to #INSPIRE women to take up refereeing
“It’s so important to keep women in the sport, and even bring more into rugby,” said Leonie Pryor, RFU Match Official Developer, who created the project.
The campaign launched by the RFU is all part of a drive to bring more female referees into the sport as part of the RFU’s Every Rose strategy.
We caught up with Leonie Pryor to share an insight into her work as an RFU referee.
The RFU is an industrial and provident society owned by over 2,000 member clubs representing over 2.5 million registered players. It forms the largest rugby union society in the world and one of the largest sports organisations in England.
In September 2010, the equivalent women’s rugby body, the Rugby Football Union for Women (RFUW), was able to nominate a member to the RFU Council to represent women and girls rugby. The RFUW rightfully took their place within the RFU in July 2012.
Across England, the number of registered female referees who regularly officiate games is currently lower than that of registered male referees, which Leonie and her team are keen to change.
With such a dominance on the pitch from the Red Roses, and with our top female referees making a name in both men’s and women’s rugby – there are so many incredible female role models in the sport.”
SARETA: Why Refereeing?
LEONIE: I wanted to stay involved in the sport following picking up an injury after a short spell of playing on the wing for a women’s development team. My playing background didn’t contribute much to my knowledge of the game, or the laws before picking up the whistle.
I had absolutely no refereeing aspirations. I’d planned to ref a few kids’ games at my local club, which would have been a great way to give something back to the sport. As it happens, one of the course leads from North Mids Refs planted a seed by asking, “why wouldn’t you referee senior rugby?” I put my destiny in the hands of others and just went with the flow. It’s led to some incredible opportunities (and a job in the sport) which I would never have thought were possible! Assistant Referee Birmingham CWG 2022, Redbull 7s 2021, 4th Official Eng v Ire, 5th Official Eng v NZL, Referee in Allianz Premiership and Women’s BUCS inc Semi-final, Assistant Referee in Men’s National 2 League. These significant appointments in performance rugby are amazing and surreal experiences! They offer a nice wee ego boost, but the fun had at community rugby ignited my passion for the sport and is what I look forward to at the weekends!
What stereotype about females in sports can we metaphorically place in the bin?
That Women don’t understand what offside means!
The idea/vision popped into my head one day. What better way to attract more Women and Girls to take up refereeing than to showcase the incredible range of female Match Officials? They’re refereeing at various levels of the game across the country on the main stage at Twickenham on a televised fixture! It’s amazing to have women like Sara Cox and Hollie Davidson operating at the game’s top level. I think it’s equally fantastic for a 15-year-old Girl to be out in the middle with the whistle for a colts game. Or a Mum in her 40s to pick up the whistle 20 years after playing and be back involved in the sport and volunteering at her local club. We’ve got a range of female Match Officials, each with their own story to tell, and every single one has the power to inspire the next one to give it a go. I want a platform for these people to tell their stories, be recognised for what they’re giving back to the sport and empower them to shout about refereeing from the rooftops.
Should Women be taking up space in other areas of Sports?
I’m pretty sure most sports depend on their volunteers to function, particularly at grassroots levels, where most players participate.
There are so many varied roles and responsibilities within a rugby environment that it would be easy to get involved. Suppose you got in touch with a local rugby referees society or rugby/tennis/hockey club. In that case, I think they would snap you right up and welcome you into their family.
PE lessons of the past were often split by gender. How can institutions encourage more girls to get into Sports stereotypically played by their male peers?
It sounds like we are from the same era. I, too, begrudged being made to play hockey, partially due to my crap coordination with any sport involving a stick, bat, or racket. I would much rather have been playing rugby.
With Women’s rugby growing an average of 17% yearly, I think there is a huge opportunity to encourage more girls to participate in the sport. Over the last few years, the number of clubs putting out Girls’ and Women’s teams has increased, which has made the sport more accessible. Rugby Union is the third largest team sport played in schools (behind football & basketball). Many universities already do a great job of training and fielding often more than one Women’s team. There are probably some great opportunities for rugby clubs to work more closely with schools to upskill teachers in facilitating rugby sessions for their students and recruit players for their own clubs. Equally, there will be opportunities for referee societies to support club and school referees outside of their membership too and expand their own networks.
What are you most looking forward to about taking to the pitch at Twickenham on November 12th?
Months of work, planning and preparation have gone into this event, and finally, seeing it come to life is really exciting. Seeing those refs making memories and seeing the reactions from the friends and families supporting them from the stands will be memorable for everyone involved. No doubt there will be some very moving moments.
How do you keep in shape to prepare for running up and down a pitch for 80 mins?
I used to think refereeing was a great way to get and stay fit, but lockdown triggered kicking things up a gear and focusing on being fit to referee. One of our Advanced Match Official Award candidates likened refereeing to “playing a game of chess whilst running a marathon” this sums it up, really. Mental endurance takes a lot of practice too. I’m averaging just under 4 miles on my games at the moment, so not quite a marathon, but the brain is usually more worn out than the body afterwards.
I love the great outdoors and hate gyms. I like to keep things varied, so I attend a circuit training class with ‘Andali Fitness’ in Ludlow a couple of times a week, and I love walking my dogs up the Shropshire hills. I’m also out on my mountain bike in the summer, but this does move down the priority list in rugby season.
Your pre-match meals consist of scrambled or poached eggs on toast. The eggs have been laid by your very own hens too! Was rearing hens a conscious effort towards an eco-friendly way of living, or did you fancy the convenience of having fresh eggs?
At the time, I wanted to rescue a few hens, and the eggs were a bonus byproduct. Unfortunately, the not-so ‘Fantastic Mr Fox’ ended that, and there’s no more Poulet, Frango or Pollo (Chicken in several languages). I maintain a healthy diet, though, and having worked previously in the farming industry, and I want to know where my food has come from. I make informed choices that minimise my carbon footprint and horrible, unnecessary plastic packaging. I could happily jump on your podcast for that rant!
What advice would you give your younger self, your inner child?
If you don’t push yourself out of your comfort zone, you’ll never know what you’re capable of, so just do it!
The RFU launched the campaign in partnership with ACME Whistles and some of the biggest refereeing names in the sport. Each day a brilliant female referee will be celebrated on social media and ruck.co.uk in the buildup to the game at Twickenham in November.
Leonie reminds us, “Without referees, we can’t have sport, so it’s only right that we are backing this important campaign – #INSPIRE!”
To find out more about the campaign, visit www.ruck.co.uk/inspire/
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