Thursday 18 January 2018

Joy Neville has been a mould-breaker all her life

 

Ireland’s Joy Neville (centre), Laura Guest (left) and Lauren Day celebrate after the final whistle of the Six Nations victory over Italy in March 2013. Picture credit: Matt Browne / Sportsfile
Ireland’s Joy Neville (centre), Laura Guest (left) and Lauren Day celebrate after the final whistle of the Six Nations victory over Italy in March 2013. Picture credit: Matt Browne / Sportsfile
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

Before the 2013 Womens' Six Nations, the Irish team had a presentation from IRFU Referee Development Manager, Dave O'Brien.

It was aimed, essentially, at hard-wiring the laws of the game into their thought processes. O'Brien talked them through a collage of videos from past games, identifying the kind of offences certain to cost penalties in the tournament. One name kept insinuating itself into his gentle spiel of admonishment.

Neville is making quite an impression as a referee. Photo by Matt Browne/Sportsfile
Neville is making quite an impression as a referee. Photo by Matt Browne/Sportsfile

The number eight's.

"Joy, you're offside there but you got away with it..."

"Joy, Joy, you can't do that..."

"Joy, you're offside again..."

Five, maybe six times in quick succession, Joy Neville was identified at the scene of another crime. O'Brien's wise counsel would prove a major contributing factor to the Irish team securing that season's historic Grand Slam, yet it also left Neville a sitting target for the gentle mockery of colleagues and friends like Lynne Cantwell and captain Fiona Coghlan.

"It's become the running joke now" she says, laughing now. "Joy, how did you become a referee when you hadn't a clue about the laws?"

The truth, of course, was that Neville knew the laws, but couldn't suppress her instinct to check their elasticity. It's how back-row forwards roll. As she put it to O'Brien "I thought, if the referee wasn't looking, I might just chance my arm!"

To overcome the dressing-room smirks and chuckles, the endemic immaturity of a male audience inclined to gape askance at a female figure of authority, maybe Joy Neville had to - above all else - hold her nerve.

In the climb that took her to Monaco last weekend, she found herself challenged by the very audience from whom she needed attention and respect. Big, wardrobe-shaped men with the attention-span of giddy schoolboys, fishing for double-entendres from every second sentence.

For a time, she ignored the childishness. But ignoring it fed it oxygen. Eventually, before a British and Irish Cup game in Doncaster, she paused in mid-sentence, turned towards the chief snigger and - channelling her inner Joe Pesci - enquired if there was something in her presentation that maybe he found funny. There and then, the idiocy subsided. So the human thing now might be to have a love-hate relationship with the platitudes coming her way as World Rugby Referee of the Year. For if she will be forever thankful to men like Dave McHugh and Peter Fitzgibbon, who helped steady the ladder up which she climbed, there were always others who made clear their distaste for what they viewed as a woman wiping the eye of tradition.

Her story has, in a sense, become a glorious inversion of old-school thinking then. The very trigger that brought her here, a comment from someone she respects that a woman refereeing an AIL Division One game would not happen in their "lifetime", seems quaint to the point of innocence now. Two weeks from now, Neville will become the first woman to referee a European professional match, taking charge of the Challenge Cup clash between Bordeaux-Begles and Enisei-STM at Stade Chaban-Delmas. And she admits that, just four years into this vocation, her ambitions have been dramatically recalibrated.

Where the AIL once seemed the mountain-top, now she's tempted to train her eye on Everest.

"Listen, I don't feel I have a right to be selected for anything whatsoever" she stresses. "But, yes, I have reset my ambitions. My next goal and challenge would be, hopefully, to be in the middle of a Guinness PRO14 game. Wonderful, if the opportunity arises. If not, so be it. And, possibly, officiating in the Six Nations, whether it's ten years down the line or whatever.

"They'd be my next two goals."

Within hours of that glittering ceremony in Monaco, she was en route to the Middle East to officiate at this week's Dubai Sevens. And it all couldn't but seem a small eternity removed from those stark early days as a referee when her only compelling instinct had been to walk away.

She remembers feeling almost irrationally nervous before her first game, exactly four years ago, an under-15 schools friendly between St Munchin's and CBC. With experience came added responsibility then and what she recalls as the sometimes ugly acoustic of a Munster Schools Senior Cup tie between Munchin's and Ard Scoil Rís in which every single call drew an angry challenge from the crowd.

Neville had retired from playing after that 2013 Grand Slam and was, initially, ambivalent to McHugh and Fitzgibbon's suggestion that she take up refereering. What exactly had they seen in her?

"I really don't know" she says.

To this day, she is reminded how - as a player - she could be "a nightmare" for referees, endlessly questioning decisions, forever testing the elastic of those rules. Pitched to the other side now, she felt profoundly uncomfortable. Indeed, three months into her new hobby, Joy Neville had her mind made up to walk.

The day Ireland beat New Zealand at the 2014 World Cup, she met Helen O'Reilly, the only Irish referee at the tournament.

"How are you finding it?" O'Reilly asked. "I'm thinking of giving it up!" answered Neville.

"Joy, please stick with it!"

And that was when O'Reilly went to work. She approached Joy's partner (now wife) Simona, pleading with her to persuade the Limerick woman to hold tough in the face of discouragement.

"What I didn't realise was that, after we'd spoken, Helen actually pulled Simona aside and was extremely adamant that I was to stick with it," Joy recalls. "Because Simona, straight away, was 'Just give it three more months...'

"So I promised that I would and that's when everything changed."

What exactly?

"I don't know, the enjoyment just started to kick in," she says now. "If Helen hadn't done that, I really think I'd have walked away. I'd become very hard on myself, always looking for the perfect game. And, for a referee, it's not possible to have the perfect game.

"So I wasn't enjoying it because I wasn't allowing myself to. I was too critical of my own performances. I suppose I had the knowledge of what a good referee was at international level and I wanted to be at that level from the very beginning. Which just wasn't a realistic goal. In every aspect of your life, you need to make mistakes to learn.

"The moment I realised that, the more relaxed I became. And the more I relaxed, the more I improved."

Part of that transition involved softening her own on-field persona. She'd been, maybe, overly didactic in manner, deploying a bark rather than a voice to communicate decisions. In a sense, Neville was trying to force the gender balance herself when she needed only to prove herself a competent referee.

The best way to rise above yells of prejudice, she knows now, is through performance, not a raised voice.

If this is a story of emancipation then, it's not for one woman in the game, but them all.

This year, Joy Neville and Alhambra Nievas became the first two female referees to take charge of full male internationals. Joy has now officiated as assistant at Champions Cup, Challenge Cup, Continental Shield and PRO14 level. In August, of course, she took charge of the Womens' World Cup final.

Two months later, she was unveiled as one of seven referees who had taken up professional contracts with the IRFU.

She resides thus at an altitude today, unimaginable in the rugby world she first entered as a 17-year-old, the women's' game then still adrift of Union support here and regarded by many as some kind of unnatural contrivance. Within a year, she had made the international squad, but it was a resolutely unromantic place.

Bad hammerings were routine, ambition seldom soaring beyond the possibility of managing to score a try.

Yet, two years after a 79-0 hammering by England at Worcester, Ireland went to Twickenham in '04 to play as the curtain-raiser for what would prove a famous Six Nations win for their male counterparts over the then world champions. Neville scored one of two Irish tries that day, their defence - this time - restricting the English women to 51 points.

It felt the experience of a lifetime, yet one that had its jarring circumstance too. "I'll never forget it," she remembers. "Going back into the changing-room afterwards, we were told that we'd 40 minutes to shower and leave the premises. We had to go across to the RFU headquarters to watch the men's game there!

"It wasn't great but you know, when I think back to that time, I think way back of the people involved in the 1991 World Cup (Ireland did not participate) who had to pay for their own flights, accommodation and gear, but stuck to it. For us too, we just got on with things. We weren't treated the best, but we played for the love of the game. We just got stuck in, got on with things and we had each others' backs."

There are, she suspects, still Unions in the game, guilty of a root-and-branch resistance to women having influence - but the IRFU Neville stresses is not one of them. From the beginning, she has felt the support of men like McHugh and Owen Doyle and prides herself on representing the first country to pass a same-sex marriage referendum.

"I do feel very proud of where we are now as a country given where we've come from," she says. "I'm very proud of the fact that we're seen as forward-thinking, that we've almost created the path for others. It's refreshing. I got a lovely, really thoughtful message from the President this week and, to be honest, I've been blown away by the support I've had."

Yet, in a sense, the greatest triumph left to Joy Neville now would be for her gender to become invisible.

"For me and I know for the rest of the girls, the overall goal is not so much to have attention focus on the fact it's a female in the middle," she agrees. "All well and good at this moment in time to be getting so much attention. But I'd love to see a day when it's not news."

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