Inside the stylish home of the former World Rugby Referee of the Year
Some homes are all about the owner's achievements, and when they're high achievers, there are usually a lot of signs of success - awards, photos, mementos scattered around the house, sometimes more tastefully done than others.
Joy Neville has achieved a phenomenal amount in her 35 years, but her successes are not in-your-face; the only obvious sign of her career in the stylish home she shares with her wife, Simona, is a simple carving in the shape of a rugby ball, which sits on the hall table. It doesn't exactly shout out her spectacular achievements as a rugby player.
Winner of 70 caps for Ireland over an 11-year career and vice-captain when the women's team won the Grand Slam in 2013, she's also the first woman international rugby referee to referee both male and female games, and she won the phenomenal accolade of World Rugby Referee of the Year at a glittering awards ceremony in Monaco in 2017. But she's modest as well as talented.
She's been honing that talent since her early days growing up in Limerick. "I've four older brothers; mum always wanted a baby girl and she got her, but she also got a tomboy," Joy says, laughing.
"I always wanted to be around the brothers. In fact, playing rugby in the back garden, Dave, the one closest to me, broke my nose in an accident. The brothers take credit for toughening me up. I was always put in goal when playing soccer with them, and once I dislocated my thumb, and I went running home in agony with my thumb pointing in a different direction," she says, adding, "There was no mum and no dad, but there was Garry - he was about 16, so he had this splendid idea of popping it back into place," she says, demonstrating how, as a result, it still hangs loose. "I had to strap it for rugby games."
The whole family is sporty - her father played rugby, as did all the boys, and her mother played tennis. Joy played basketball, squash and soccer at school, but rugby wasn't available to girls in school in those days. However, when she reached 17, she got an opportunity to go to a training session, and loved it immediately. "Six months after I started playing, I was on the Munster squad, and six months after that, I was on the Ireland team," she says. "I was 18 when I first started playing for Ireland."
She did a degree in social studies and social care at LIT and continued playing rugby at the top throughout but, unlike the men, the women are not professional. "The women study or work and then train in the early mornings or evenings. You do it for the love, the passion, the people you play with, the friendships you gain," Joy says, adding, "I always wanted sisters. In a way, I have sisters. When you go through such highs and lows and ups and downs, blood sweat and tears, it peels back a lot of the person, and as a result you have an unbelievable bond. [Ex teammates] Fiona Coghlan and Lynne Cantwell would be among my best friends."
Joy was fortunate in that after completing her studies, she got a job as director of rugby in LIT, so she was able to give the game her all; she has never actually worked in the social care area.
Rugby virtually consumed her life; playing at international level exerts, Joy says, a huge toll, both physically and emotionally. Physically, Joy was relatively lucky - she ruptured a medial ligament and broke her leg in two places - so she got off lightly.
Emotionally, though, she feels she did miss out. "I was honoured with a civic reception in Limerick this year and it was lovely, because I got to thank those nearest and dearest to me for their support. I missed so many of their special moments. You do have to be selfish and you do have to put the game first. You're away so much, so you're never there for them in the way they are for you," the dynamic blonde explains.
"I've missed wedding, christenings, and momentous birthdays and they've always understood what we've tried to achieve as a team. My parents are great, and they're uber proud. My mum actually said to me recently, 'I can remember like it was yesterday the day I didn't want you to start playing rugby, because of the risk of injury, and look at you now'."
Because of the emotional toll, Joy was ready to give up when she did - at the height of her career. "I retired in 2013, when we won the Grand Slam. I was vice-captain. I went into the last game knowing I was going to hang up my boots," she says.
What she didn't realise was she was going to be presented immediately with another groundbreaking challenge. "I was approached by a very persuasive guy called Dave McHugh who asked would I would be interested in refereeing," Joy recalls. "I said, 'No way, I've just completed 11 years of total commitment'. He said, 'I'll come back in eight months', and he did, eight months to the day. I knew he meant business, so I said, 'Let me make a few phone calls'. I phoned a gentleman very high up in rugby circles and asked him if it was possible for a woman to referee in the top division. And he said, 'Not in my lifetime. No'. I picked up the phone to Dave McHugh and said, 'I'm in'. We all need a bit of motivation, and that was what I wanted to achieve."
That was in 2014. Within a year, Joy had refereed in the Pro14 and the European Cup, and then, in 2017, she was awarded the World Rugby Referee Of The Year at the World Rugby Awards.
"It wasn't until the announcement that I realised it was for refereeing for both female and male. I don't think it was saying that I'm the best referee in the world, but it was because I was the first lady to ref the Pro14. I'm still very proud that I've proved him [the high-up rugby man she phoned] wrong. I've met him a few times since, and we've hugged. I wouldn't want to rub it in his face, but it's a special thing when you've proved them wrong."
One of only six international refs in Ireland, Joy has reached the top in one of the last bastions of male domination, but she hasn't left her female friends in sport behind, and is a big supporter of the 20x20 movement - she is the face of November in the campaign's calendar.
"The main message of 20x20 is to create a culture shift in the perception of women in sport. If I got a euro for every time I was asked, 'Is there a women's rugby team?' I started playing in 2002 - it wasn't till 2009 that the question stopped being asked. 2013 was the first time the women's Six Nations was televised. Success breeds success," Joy explains, adding, "By 2020, we want a 20pc increase in female participation of all sports, a 20pc increase in attendance and a 20pc increase in coverage. It's a great campaign, and I fully support it. Women's rugby is just as exciting, just as skilful; the ball is in play a lot more; aggression and control is just as high. The Women's World Cup final between England and New Zealand in Belfast in 2017 is reckoned to be one of the top five rugby finals ever."
One of the reasons Joy gave up playing rugby herself was because it stymied her chance to have a fulfilling private life. Being a referee at the top level is even more challenging. She has to train every day - remember, she has to keep up with the top athletes in the country. It also means she is away every weekend during the season, so it's still hard, but now she has Simona to come home to.
"I didn't come out till I was 24," Joy says. "There was a good two years where I kept it to myself. I needed to understand who I was. Anyone who has to deal with sexuality issues has difficult moments - it's never easy, but the moment you accept yourself, it becomes easier. I've wonderful friends and family; so many said, 'Why didn't you tell us sooner? It makes no difference to us, we love who you are.' I feel very lucky."
And all the luckier since she met Simona, who is also from Limerick and is also very sporty - she has done an Ironman and she's a fan of rugby, though not a player. "You'd throw a ball to her and she'd run away," Joy laughs. "We met five years ago on a night out. Simona's family are Italian; they own restaurants here, La Piccola Italia and La Cucina. In fact my parents were at Simona's parents wedding."
She recalls: "We got married at Dromquinna [in Kenmare] and we both wore white. We didn't tell each other about our outfits. I bought mine in Adare, and after I had picked my dress, I asked if could I book an appointment for my fiancee. The sales lady was a bit confused at first," Joy says with a laugh. "And I told her to take my dress out so Simona wouldn't pick the same."
The couple have a lovely period house which they share with their adored dogs - Dori, a beagle; and Jack, a rescue dog. Simona had bought the house before they became an item, but they did renovate it together, extending the kitchen and converting the attic. They had an architect, Noel Kerley; and an interior designer, Tullio Orlandi.
"I had to persuade Simona to agree to a designer. I said, 'Would you do your own dental work?' We could have done it ourselves, but now we have our dream house," she says happily, noting the light and space and great use of colour - and the lovely walk-in wardrobe of shoes and bags; Joy loves a nice bag. "Simona insists they're all mine," says Joy, not actually denying it.
By the way, the wooden rugby ball isn't the only memento of her career; it transpires there a few photos in the downstairs loo, including one of Joy with President Michael D.
"I'm not proud of the fact that the President is in the toilet," Joy says apologetically, adding that she didn't want to be showing off by putting her mementos on obvious display. However, there's no doubt he's proud to be photographed beside such a fabulous female pioneer. To find out more about Joy, see navyblue.ie Also, see clionasfoundation.ie
Edited by Mary O'Sullivan
Photography by Tony Gavin