'If I think of myself as a female ref, I'm at a disadvantage'
As the only woman refereeing men's rugby at J1 level in Ireland, Helen O'Reilly is on a fast learning curve, writes Brendan Fanning
Helen O'Reilly was sitting at her desk in a Government department last month when an important email landed in her inbox. Given that she was dealing with clients just then, sharing the good news didn't seem appropriate. Not for the first time, she had to square something away and carry on as if nothing had happened.
The good news was that she will be refereeing the Ireland versus Spain women's Test match next month. Less than two years into her career as a referee, this kind of progress is not unheard of given the willingness in that business to fast-track suitable candidates. What is unique about O'Reilly is that she is already the only woman in Ireland refereeing men's rugby at J1 level – one tier down from AIL.
In a macho world of fairly brutal physicality, this should be a risky journey to a place well outside her comfort zone. She seems to have settled pretty well.
We spoke last week to one of the coaches involved in a game O'Reilly took charge of recently. The losing coach. After video analysis of their performance, he reckoned she had not contributed to the loss. "There were one or two decisions we'd have had a major problem with but you'd get that with any ref," he said. "I thought she handled the game, and the lads, very well. Would we be happy to have her again? Absolutely."
O'Reilly would be pleased with that assessment for her ambition is not to be noticed. To fit in, maybe well enough to progress to AIL level. Part of the camouflage process is to get in and out of dressing rooms without causing a ripple.
One day she announced that she was doing a stud check only to be told she was addressing a room full of studs. Another, a player tried to get an opponent in trouble by claiming he had overheard him saying she should be home on domestic duty. It's a bit early in her career to have heard it all, but already she has learned how to deflect comments and carry on.
"I can't think of myself as a female ref," she says. "If I do that I'm already putting myself at a disadvantage. I have to go in to a changing room with confidence, be prepared and know what I want to say to them. I might get an issue from a coach who goes: 'Great, a female ref, here we go'. The players are cuter – they know they have to go on the pitch with me so they're better. But overall I have to say the men have been fantastic. And what I get at the end is: 'Jesus ref, you were actually really good!' And it's the 'actually' word. I think they don't expect anything, and when they get a bit of a standard they're quite taken aback."
O'Reilly is a sports nut, and always has been. She grew up in Clondalkin, the youngest of nine girls, and was into everything that involved a ball and competition. Rugby only dawned in her early 20s when she was on a gap year in Australia. Based for a while in Sydney, she saw a fair bit of women's rugby in a club near Bondi and reckoned she'd pick it up when she got back.
What followed was 10 years evenly split between Ashbourne and St Mary's, an AIL Division 2 title in each club, and the standard amount of injuries you'd expect in a career of that length. The most dramatic was being removed on a spinal board from the Kinsale Sevens and spending much of the next 24 hours with no feeling on her left side.
"Yeah, it wasn't ideal," she says. "I think when you look at your team-mates and you can see them looking concerned it's not good. You know by their reaction – people are staying calm but you know by the look." The most painful was having splints up her nose after an operation to correct a deviated septum. Mid range in the injury catalogue is a protruding legacy of a painfully heavy tackle, which she refers to as her spare rib.
O'Reilly's decision to take up such a difficult job came because it was the next best thing to playing, she reckoned. Coaching offered an alternative to the real thing, but reffering gave her the best seat in the house, and the chance to contribute to the show. She's right – it does afford a perfect insight into the ebb and flow of a game, but the price can be very high.
Her worst experience came in a youths match last season where the parents were in full cry. Pretty soon she felt the game sliding away from her.
"I let the sideline get into me," she says. "The comment that was made that day – and it stayed with me – was from a mother on the sideline, and she said, 'You're a bloody disgrace to women'.
"I didn't hear it at the time and I was glad I didn't but it was repeated to me afterwards, and I remember thinking: 'I'll prove you wrong!' I swore to myself I'd never listen to a sideline again. Ever. I'd block it out. Now I don't hear it. My partner has come up to watch me ref and she'd say: 'Oh God some of the stuff that's said on the sideline . . . ' She finds it hard. But now I'm so focused on the game I don't notice. I think I've got the mix right."
On current progress her reward will be the Women's World Cup in 2014. You'd imagine she'll have generated some more good news between now and then.
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