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'I would never have thought it would be possible. I would have said, 'Absolutely not''

Trailblazing referee Joy Neville looks back through the past few months, and years, of breaking boundaries and smashing firsts.

JOY NEVILLE NEEDS no introduction at this stage.

Every passing week seems to see the former Ireland international break down another barrier in the refereeing game. The past few months have been something else.

Ulster v Southern Kings - Guinness PRO14 Round 14 Source: Oliver McVeigh

From taking charge of the Women’s Rugby World Cup final in Kingspan Stadium last August to becoming one of the first female referees to take charge of a men’s international, followed by the first to oversee a men’s professional club fixture. Challenge Cup and Pro14 debuts to being crowned World Rugby Referee of the Year for 2017.

It’s been an absolute whirlwind for the Limerick native, the poacher turned gamekeeper.

First question: this time last year, looking to where you are now and how much you’ve achieved over the past few months, would you ever have envisaged it?

“No…. no,” she tells The42. Plain and simple, pausing for a moment to stop and think through everything.

“Do you know what, I think since the Women’s World Cup, probably — that was a massive platform to propel me to the male professional game. I went into that World Cup and obviously had thoughts of getting the final but that was in the background.

“It was about performing in between in order to be in a position to get selected for it. Doing the final, it was such a cracking game as well. It probably highlighted the fact to Challenge Cup, EPCR (European Professional Club Rugby), World Rugby and Pro14 that… There was like five million people that watched that game. I think a lot of it’s got to do with how you handle the pressure and I just tend to block it out. It was probably to my advantage.

“Since then the ball has been rolling something wicked. It’s been unbelievable getting World Referee of the Year with World Rugby.

“To be honest I would never have thought when I first started that it would be possible to referee Pro14 or EPCR. I would have said, ‘Absolutely not’.

“My aim was the AIL and I think as the time has gone on and I’ve accomplished or achieved different goals, I’m now more optimistic about what came be. Once you put your mind to it and get as prepared as possible.”

***

She smiles as she recalls the pinnacle of her 11-year international playing career. The historic 2013 Grand Slam, undoubtedly, but there were many other highs and lows.

“We got to play in Twickenham back in 2004,” she remembers, as the countless memories in the green jersey come flooding back.

Joy Neville, Fiona Coghlan and Lynne Cantwell lift the cup Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“Two tries were scored on the day, I scored one of them. We never played in Twickenham and we never scored against England. Two historic occasions, you know.”

Back then, they’d be facing deficits of 50, 60 and 70-0 to the Red Roses. Ireland’s goals were realistic: to minimise the damage, to accomplish a set-piece move or a phase of play.

“Bit by bit, we started closing the gap,” Neville continues, comparing and contrasting those encounters with that fateful day in Milan when they capped a 100% record in the 2013 Six Nations and finally reached the Holy Grail. It also came as a parting gift.

“It was pretty special. I knew I was hanging up the jersey and the boots before that game. I remember being quite emotional for the anthem. It’s nice. Not many people can say that they went on their own terms.

“In a way, I got to enjoy that game to the best of my ability because I knew that was going to be my last 80 minutes with the green jersey on. It was close, it was 6-3 and then to win a Grand Slam…. just, unbelievable.”

That said, the boots weren’t hung up for too long as she dipped her toes into something she never thought she would. Nine months later, she was ready for another challenge and going down the refereeing road.

“100%, I didn’t contemplate it,” the 34-year-old grins, agreeing that she had no interest when she was playing or immediately after.

“I had to be plagued. I’m now thankful that I was plagued. I’m in a very, very lucky position. I’ve experienced so much in both my playing and now as a referee.

“Words can’t explain what I’ve even experienced in the last year but I’m very thankful for those who push me.”

In conversation with Joanne Cantwell at the ‘Liberty Insurance Women in Sport, The Next Chapter’ symposium in Croke Park on Tuesday, Neville named her wife, Simona, fellow trailblazing referee, Helen O’Reilly, and ex-international referee Davy McHugh as three of such.

Joy Neville Source: James Crombie/INPHO

It was McHugh, the IRFU referee manager at the time, who first put the refereeing question to Neville. He planted the seed in her head, and kept at her. Eventually, she caved but told him she had to make one phone call before coming on board fully.

She reached out to someone she respected who was high up in rugby circles. If she was to take on this new challenge, she had to give 100%. She wanted to know what was achievable, what glass ceilings could be broken and how big the task ahead was.

“I asked him one question, I asked him, ‘Do you think it’s possible for a female to referee in the All-Ireland League Division 1A, the men’s division?’ And he said, ‘Joy, not in my lifetime.’

“That was just a no. I said, ‘Right, ok’ and put the phone down. I rang Davy McHugh and said, ‘Right, I’m in.’”

To mark International Women’s Day on Thursday, she tweeted a fitting quote — ‘to tell a woman everything she cannot do is to tell her what she can’ — and of course, in November 2016, she became the first female to referee an AIL Ulster Bank League Division 1A fixture, her proudest moment to date.

“It’s funny because obviously you’d think that Challenge Cup and Pro14 or the Women’s World Cup final would be. I don’t mean to belittle any of them because they shouldn’t be, they’re massive things.

“I’m just proud of myself that I didn’t allow someone discourage me from trying to achieve. I was told blatant no, and I achieved that a couple of years ago. I’m still very proud of that.

“Obviously, they’re up there with that but that will always be close to my heart.”

As Neville took to the middle at Temple Hill, the former Ireland captain grabbed headlines left, right and centre as she etched her name into history — just like she’s done many, many times since.

It seems as if a week doesn’t pass without her name in the media; another milestone reached, another first smashed. But Neville hopes for a time when her firsts aren’t a story.

“I’ve got an awful lot of media attention and wonderful support, but I’ve always argued that the day that it comes whereby it’s not a story anymore is a day that we win, as women and sport and as an official as well.

Ulster v Southern Kings - Guinness PRO14 Round 14 Source: Oliver McVeigh

“It’s been magnificent and it has been unbelievable, I just think now that it’s time… it’s not about the gender, it’s about a job being done and a referee in the middle providing a good, anonymous style of refereeing.

“That’s what I’ll always aim to achieve anyway as a referee. I’ll always try to do the best for the players because it’s not about the referee, it’s 100% about the players.”

She feels it is moving in that direction though, with the conversations and reports following her Pro14 debut overseeing Ulster and Southern Kings about the job at hand, not the fact that it was a female with the whistle.

“That was refreshing and I’m hoping that’s the start of something new,” she concedes, as we further discuss her training regime and day-to-day-life towards the end of our chat.

Beaming from ear-to-ear as she explains her training groups and schedules, it’s fair to say she’s thoroughly enjoying life at the moment. But surely, she must miss actually handling the oval ball from time to time?

“Oh, I miss playing,” she concludes. “Absolutely.

“I think the first couple of months of refereeing I nearly was looking to intercept the ball… ‘What are you doing like?!’ I’m past that now.

“At times, I miss playing the matches but I don’t miss the training. This training is far (more) suited to me and I love it.”

And that’s glaringly obvious, it must be said.

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Emma Duffy

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