News Irish News

Saturday 21 April 2018

Standing out from the scrum - meet the woman behind the Guinness PRO12 tournament

As Munster hope for a final win in Dublin today, our reporter meets some of the women involved in the Guinness PRO12 tournament

Field day: Referee Joy Neville in Thomond Park. Photo: Brian Gavin Press 22
Field day: Referee Joy Neville in Thomond Park. Photo: Brian Gavin Press 22
Limerick referee Joy Neville. Photo: Brian Gavin Press 22
Amy Monaghan, Guiness PRO12 Tournament Manager at The Aviva stadium. Photo: Tony Gavin
Laura Mahony, performance nutritionist, Connacht Rugby. Photo: Andrew Downes, xposure

Chrissie russell

From the lads on the field to the guys on the gate and the predominantly male crowd in the stands, there'll undeniably be a whiff of testosterone to today's Munster vs Scarlets Guinness Rugby PRO12 final at the Aviva.

But while the men might still be in the majority, rugby is increasingly feeling the effects of a female touch. Not only is the women's team going from strength to strength but more and more women are making their mark at all levels of the men's game. From co-ordinating tournaments to controlling matches and creating optimum performance for players, we hear from three of the women tackling challenges in the sport and trying to change the face of rugby.

I’ve found with players that respect depends on you doing a job well, not your gender

The referee

Limerick referee Joy Neville is the first woman to officiate in the British and Irish Cup and All-Ireland League Division One and run the line in the PRO12. Fresh from picking up her Referee of the Year award at the Munster Rugby awards, the former Ireland ladies' captain, and Grand-Slam winner, explains what life is like on the pitch, second time around.

"Before I decided to become a referee, I rang someone high up in rugby circles whose opinion I respected. 'What, in your eyes, would be the opportunity for an Irish female to referee in an Irish division 1A or 1B game?' I asked him. His reply was: 'Joy, not in my lifetime.' That was me in. That was my goal. I literally picked up the phone to Dave McHugh (performance referee manager at IRFU) there and then and said, 'That's me in.'

"As a player, I know that a referee has to be approachable. But when I started off, I wasn't as approachable as I should have been. I think I was a bit defensive because I was afraid that, as a woman, I would be taken advantage of on the pitch. But what I've found with the players is that respect depends on you doing a job well, not gender. The lads do worry about what to call me, though. They have a habit of going, 'Sir! Oh no, sorry…' I'm fine about it; they can call me 'sir' or 'ma'am' - I'm not going to take offence.

"I've definitely come across a few negative remarks off the pitch, mostly the older generation. The comments can be derogatory but I don't let it bother me. It's just about education and showing that a woman can do just as good a job in the middle as a man.

"I train with some of the male referees and we push each other. Refereeing in the Sevens World Series could mean up to five games, two days in a row and running the guts of a half marathon in a weekend. But the training is very different to when I was playing - more about speed and endurance than strength - and I prefer it. I was never one for the weights.

"I was blown away to get the Referee of the Year award. Refereeing is a totally different adrenaline rush to playing, but it's still a rush. I played for 11 years - the pinnacle being winning the Grand Slam - and when you play, you're playing for your team beside you. The excitement of refereeing is more about the personal challenges, coming off the pitch feeling content and happy with how you dealt with the players and refereed the game. It's very rare you'd come off the pitch and both teams are happy with the referee's performance. It's always a good thing when a match has taken place and the referee hasn't been recognised.

"It's a wonderful experience but it isn't easy. This year, up to March, I was away 12 out of 14 weekends. It can be a lonely old world, with a lot of solo travel, and I also have my job as rugby development officer at Limerick IT during the week.

"There's no way I could do it without the support of my family and my wife, Simona. She was the one backing me, who said, 'There's something there - I think you should give it a go and see what comes out of it,' when I was thinking about refereeing. There isn't a day that goes by where I don't thank her for the support that she's given me, because she's been amazing."

I grew up in a sports-mad house - not what you’d expect from a family of seven girls!

The nutritionist

Laura Mahony is Connacht's first full-time performance nutritionist. She knows her 'world class with every bite' philosophy can make all the difference in match results.

"My approach is that in any set-up, whether it's amateur or professional, marginal gains are vital. If you come up against an opponent who has exactly the same skill set as you, you don't want nutrition to be the deciding factor. If you can gain an extra one or two per cent in your performance by having the best body composition for your playing position, or by improving your fuelling and recovery stages, or through use of targeted sport supplements - then why would you not do it?

"I think most people now can see how the game has evolved and they recognise the key role that nutrition has in rugby. It's a collision sport where strength and size are key factors so, without optimum body composition, performance may be compromised. Not fuelling right before, or after, training can also affect a player's immune system or put him at risk of injury.

"My role is to keep the players as healthy as possible and enable them to train better. For me, as a performance nutritionist, rugby provides a perfect challenge: trying to get players bigger but not too big, lean but not too lean, bigger but not fatter! The playing positions also have very different demands and I love working within a squad because of the dynamics and challenges that brings. This is my dream job.

"I grew up in a sports-mad house - perhaps not what you'd expect in a family of seven girls! The first year my camogie club, the Harps in Laois, won an All-Ireland title, I was on the team with four of my sisters. I did an undergrad in sports and exercise science, then worked for the NHS and HSE for a number of years as a dietitian before moving into performance nutrition.

"On a day-to-day basis, I'll do body composition (skin fold) testing and one-on-one reviews with players. I try to get them to take photos of their meals so we can review portion size and choices, and I encourage them all to learn to cook - some of the best fun I've had has been at our MasterChef competitions or listening to the players tell me about their Come Dine With Me evenings. Of course, not every player does exactly what I suggest all the time - I wouldn't have half as much challenge in my role if they did! - but if they're not receptive to advice, then my challenge is to find out why and link in with other staff to find the best approach for that player.

"On match days, I'll liaise with hotels on menus, timings of meals and the timings for ergogenic aids and supplements like caffeine beetroot juice. Timing is crucial for optimised performance but you also don't want to be around a squad of 24 'hangry' men! PRO12 match schedules can vary from a 1.30pm to a 7.35pm start, so the timing and type of food intake in the 24 hours leading up to kick-off can vary significantly.

"Outside of work, I'm sometimes reluctant to tell people what I do, as straight away I'll get asked about their diet - or if I'm out to dinner, my own menu choices will be scrutinised or, worse still, people will feel they've to change what they're eating because I'm there!

"If you see me enjoying some chips, just please let me enjoy it and don't ask, 'Should you really be eating that?'"

The hairs on the back of your neck stand up — it’s brilliant knowing you played a part in bringing that game to life

The tournament manager

Tournament manager Amy Monaghan knows every person and every process it takes to make the Guinness PRO12 competition run perfectly, from first kick-off to final whistle.

"I can't wait for today's final. When people ask me about the perks of my job, it's that moment: being at a game and feeling the emotion in the stadium and seeing it on the faces of the players and the fans. The hairs on the back of your neck stand up and it's brilliant knowing you played a part in bringing that to life.

"I love watching rugby - I'm a total rugby geek - but although I knew I wanted to work in sport, I initially thought I'd be a sports journalist. Then a friend working for the International Rugby Board (now World Rugby) said they were looking for someone to come in for three weeks. That was in 2003 and I left 10 years later.

"I came on with the Guinness PRO12 18 months ago. It's definitely a job where you need to be super organised. I've spent the last week sorting accreditation, hotels, team catering in the stadium, any activations the teams need me to do, checking if they have their rugby balls… It's just a case of making sure all systems and processes are in place.

"I have to co-ordinate with a massive group of people - teams, match officials, our officials, broadcasters - but it's just a case of being organised and making sure that you're not forgetting anybody.

"The challenges are the ad hoc things that come up - like having to arrange disciplinary hearings - and the things that are out of your control. Like when the floodlights went out in the 78th minute of the Leinster game in Scotland. I was watching it on TV and said to my boyfriend, 'How long do you think it's going to take for my phone to ring?' and straight away a message came through from our member of staff on site. The important thing is not to panic: there's always a solution.

"The next major thing I'll be working on will be the HIA (head injury assessment) review technology that we're going to be bringing in next season, finding the best system, seeing if the clubs want four angles or six and how it will operate. I'll also be straight into getting ready for next season, going through our participation agreement and meeting with all the event management people to review this season.

"But first thing tomorrow, the work phone is going off. I'm having a lie-in and taking two weeks' holiday. There's a lot of commitment involved in working in a sport because you do have to give up so much of your free time, but I'm so passionate about it - this competition is my baby. My other half works in sports too so he gets it. He's the team manager for the Irish cricket team so, while the rugby season is drawing to a close, the cricket is just getting going.

Weekend Magazine

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Editor's Choice

Also in Irish News