• Amy Perrett refereeing at the Women's Rugby World Cup in 2014 (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
Amy Perrett is the reluctant poster girl for women’s refereeing in Australia.
Jill Scanlon

15 Jul 2016 - 8:38 AM  UPDATED 15 Jul 2016 - 8:39 AM

The 26 year old is even being called “the First Lady” of rugby officiating at the highest level.

This past month has been a big one for Perrett. She refereed her first Super Rugby game running the sidelines – a first for a female official – and will do her second game this week in the final round of the SR season.

Perrett says it’s been a busy year with many opportunities coming her way but that she did not expect this one to be presented to her for some time yet.

“I’ve been working with my referee manager Scott Young and my coach John McCarthy and we spoke at the beginning of the year about potentially achieving Super Rugby as part of my goals setting – but I didn’t think it would happen this year.

“I originally only had the one game but then a second one popped up, so it was pretty special to be able to get two. I’m looking forward to that now - the Reds v Rebels in the last round - hopefully it’s going to be a bit easier, a bit less distraction,” she laughed having been put through the media ringer a fortnight ago when it was announced she would become the first female referee to officiate in a Super Rugby match.

Rugby has always been a part of Perrett’s life and picking up the whistle rather than the ball was initially just a way to keep in touch with the game.

She says it all started when, no longer able to play in her team with the boys, she elected to help out at her local club. Rugby has been Perrett’s sport of choice since the age of seven having joined her twin brother’s team one day as a fill-in.

Like many young girls playing any football code – not just rugby - once she turned 12 she was no longer allowed to play

“I picked up the whistle originally because I couldn’t play with the boys anymore - I played right up until my 12th birthday and then I had to stop. So the next year I decided to give refereeing a go - just to give back to our club. I did that and so then I could still hang around with the boys who were in my team,” she said.

As has been the case for many of those involved with rugby, 2009 proved to be a pivotal year in future career plans and sporting aspirations, when the bid for the inclusion of Sevens at the 2016 Rio Olympics was successful - for Amy Perrett, that opened up a whole world of new possibilities.

“In 2009, when it was actually made into an Olympic sport, we thought females would have to officiate the women’s games at the Olympics and so that showed me how far you could get as a referee,” she said.

Perrett has become a bit of a pioneer in her field as there was no specific direction for female rugby referees when she started down this road.

“There wasn’t a clear pathway for female officials – there was a pathway for officials – but now we’re developing one just for female officials. So now we have a female national panel alongside the men’s national panel and you can do women’s Ttest matches and get on the Women’s World Series. So hopefully now, a few more women will be able to do Super Rugby so we can continue making our pathway a bit bigger,” she said.

Perrett currently works for NSW Rugby in referee development

“That’s part of my job now trying to attract more girls to refereeing and develop them so we can get greater depth and more competition in the refereeing ranks,” she said.

According to Perrett the number of women getting involved is slowly growing and she sees it as part of her role to show them what a strong career path in sport it can be.

“My manager calls me his poster girl: part of my job is showing young girls that there is a pathway and what you can achieve if you decide to pick up the whistle.”

For Perrett the future is bright

She is ticking all the boxes and the Super Rugby one is a big one and has whet her appetite to do more in the men’s game, showing that refereeing is not necessarily a gender-based workplace.

“I’d like to see what I can do further in the men’s game and that could potentially be with NRC this year – I’ve run the line for the past two years on that – so whether they think I can officiate a game there that’d be great.

“There’s not too much difference between the two types of games – generally the men’s is faster so the speed of the breakdown and distributing the ball is a lot faster - but the girl’s skill levels are just as good. It’s just making sure you’re fit enough and have those clearer pictures in your head of what you’re seeing. It’s all about reading the game, decision making and that just comes with time and experience at top level rugby,” said Perrett.

Remember, referees are also athletes and so need to do intensive fitness training just as the players do

Each week for Perrett involves sessions for running and sprinting, gym workouts and weight training where both power and speed are important for referees to be able to respond quickly to the changes in pace within a game.

While Perrett works hard on her fitness though, she finds the travel aspect of her increasingly busy lifestyle a challenge.

“Where I struggle is, with a lot of travelling involved now, in just trying to manage the travel recovery and the high intensity of training. I find that coming home you can’t get straight into a heavy program; you have to get into it slowly so you don’t get injured, but then two weeks later you might be gone again – so you can’t get that consistency in training. But that’s just part of the life of a referee, so it’s just about managing that,” she said.

Perrett finds support and advice from fellow referees and ARU staff helps her deal with this aspect of the job.

“I talk to Angus (Gardner – Australian referee) all the time about this kind of stuff because we’ve had similar issues in relation to injuries.  We also have some resources available at the ARU with a trainer and he gives us a program for when we get on a flight - what we should be eating and when we should have sleep to get over jetlag. He writes us up programs to help us with our training to build it up so that we’re right for the weekend – not too tired or too tight,” she said.

Perrett is getting used to the busy schedule that dictates her year admitting most of it is laid out well in advance.

“We can know three to four months beforehand – with the Sevens you find out right at the beginning of the season but with XVs it varies depending on the window,” she said.

“So both the World Rugby Sevens and the XVs managers work together to try and not overload us but I’ve been to Europe three times this season and still have a few more big trips to go – particularly in November with quite a few Test matches being played up there.”

While playing is the pinnacle for many, Perrett says she has found so many more opportunities to participate in rugby have come from being a referee and that both World Rugby and the ARU are being very supportive of the development of women in officiating roles in the game.

“There are so many more opportunities, potentially, as a referee I think than as a top player – because we get to do both men’s and women’s - whereas if you’re a top female player that’s your one pathway.

“I was in Monaco for the men’s Olympic repechage and they gave four of us female refs a couple of men’s games to do. So that’s the first step and I thought we all handled it pretty well. It wasn’t too different to refereeing the women’s game to be honest; so you never know, over the next few years you might see some of the women on the Men’s World Series or some more women involved in Super Rugby.”

There are few major boxes which currently exist in rugby refereeing for a female that Perrett hasn’t ticked

She’s refereed a Women’s Rugby World Cup final, the Women’s Six Nations series and the Women’s World Series among some of the key achievements on her CV, but still has plenty left on her ‘to do’ list.

“I never thought I’d do any of that, it has just come as an absolute bonus to everything I thought I could achieve - it’s just incredible,” she said.

The Women’s Rugby XVs World Cup rolls around again next year and 2018 will have both the Sevens World Cup and the Commonwealth Games in Australia with women’s sevens joining the men’s competition at the Gold Coast event and with Perrett leading the push into the men’s game for female officials – the possibilities are seemingly endless.

But in the immediate future – the Olympics in Rio beckons

Perrett is excited about participating at the world’s biggest sporting event. But while she has been chalking up many key milestones on her journey this year, she says she’s hoping NOT to referee the big one – the gold medal game - on the final day of the women’s fixture.

While this may seem at odds with her drive to achieve new goals, Perrett knows that if she is given the prize job of holding the whistle in the final, it will mean the Australian women have missed out on the opportunity to win gold and Perrett says she would love nothing more than to see this Aussie Women’s team go all the way.

“I look at these Aussie girls and they’re such an inspiration to me with how hard they’ve worked. So at the end of the day, as a referee, you know that you can be the best referee but not be given the final for a number of reasons - so I really hope those girls can win the gold medal because it would just be so good for Australian rugby if those girls can bring it home,” said Perrett.  

“Anyway, I got a bit used to it on the World Series because they were pretty much in every final,” she said with a laugh.

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