Joy Neville was the referee for the first game of the 2022 Women’s Six Nations, but this test felt different to her.
s she stood on the pitch while ‘Flower of Scotland’ was played for Scotland’s opener against England in Edinburgh last month, she felt a tear roll down her face. Neville was TMO for Wales v Italy in the men’s Six Nations game in March and she also refereed an Under-20s match. But this was her first time to ref a senior Six Nations game since she gave birth to her son, Alfie, last June. She didn’t know if she’d ever get back to this position.
“I just looked around and thought, ‘Well done you’. You’ve got your body back in good shape, you’re not where you want to be yet, but you’re getting there. And it was a proud moment to be back there refereeing a women’s international,” Neville told the Irish Independent. “I didn’t know seven months ago whether I’d achieve that. It was just an emotional moment. I was very happy to represent my family, my little boy and the union (IRFU).”
Neville returned to training six weeks after she gave birth last summer. She had previously talked with Dudley Phillips, her boss, and the IRFU performance director, David Nucifora, about her plans to have a baby with her wife, Simona.
“I wanted to know where I stood and I wanted to know that I could achieve a contract in a high-performance environment and have a family and be able to come back to it. And I didn’t know whether they saw that as an opportunity or whether it was a possibility, and that’s my words,” Neville says. “And what I loved from both of them (Phillips and Nucifora) was, ‘Well, why can’t you get back to where you were?’ And that’s exactly what was said to me. So I was very grateful for the support.”
Even with this support, Neville had doubts over whether she would be able to return to top-level refereeing and if she would want to be away from her family. She looked into different career options and even went for another job interview, but she didn’t get it. Her confidence wasn’t where it was before. “Refereeing the professional men’s game, they’re fast and I struggle with them at the best of times – never mind spouting a child out and then having to get that fitness back again. It was very intimidating and I felt that my confidence wasn’t as high as it normally would be because it was the unknown. Johnny Lacey – my coach – was excellent.
“I’ll always remember that conversation I had with Johnny. I sat down with him, having a coffee, and I expressed: I don’t have the confidence, I don’t know if I’d be able to get back into it. Without taking from the job that I applied for, part of the reason I went for that job was that I didn’t have the belief I’d be able to get back to that environment. Part of my emotion that day (in the W6N game in Edinburgh) was, ‘Thank Christ, I didn’t get that job’. I got back here and I did do it and I didn’t know I could.”
Gráinne Crabtree is in her seventh season as a rugby referee. The Derry woman is a level four national ref and takes charge of games in Division Two of the AIL. Unlike Neville, it’s not her full-time job, it’s her hobby. Crabtree had her first son, David, last August. Like Neville, she values the support she got from the IRFU and her provincial branch when she came back to refereeing after maternity. There were others, though, that she was glad to prove wrong.
“For me, I had a lot of body confidence issues whenever I came back reffing. Obviously, from the (c-)section, my physical appearance has changed a bit. I’ve had issues with my hips – one of mine hasn’t gone back in, so I’m constantly trying to rehab it,” Crabtree says.
“For me, in my head, I know certain people didn’t think I’d be able to come back and that’s kind of been my motivation because I love proving people wrong! So, it’s like, OK, that person said, ‘Oh, they’ll never ref again’ and I was like, ‘I will ref again!’ I’m not leaving the national panel because I’ve had a baby, I’m leaving on my terms and that won’t be because of baby David. It’ll be because I decided I don’t want to referee anymore”.
What Crabtree and Neville have both found – to a degree – is they’re less self-critical now that their lives have changed. “You don’t have the time to analyse yourself when you come home because you have somebody else to occupy your time,” Crabtree says. “The focus completely changes. As soon as I stop being ‘Gráinne, the referee’, I’m back to being ‘Gráinne, the mummy’.
Neville feels she’s enjoying her refereeing more.
“All referees have something in common – we’re our worst critics. For me, personally, that minimised my enjoyment because I was so overly critical post-match. And since having Alfie, what I found is that I’m allowing myself to enjoy it an awful lot more because I understand how lucky I am to be back in it.”