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Aurélie Groizeleau: 'You have to realise that referees are still human'

The referee of the match Aurelie Groizeleau during the Rugby Six Nations match 2022 Six Nations Under 20 - Italy vs England on February 11, 2022 at the Monigo stadium in Treviso, Italy (Photo by Ettore Griffoni/LiveMedia/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

On March 8, it was International Women’s Day. While millions of people marked it in various ways around the world, for French rugby referee Aurélie Groizeleau, it was another day at the office, overseeing the ProD2 match between Colomiers and Mont-de-Marsan.

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She has been quietly going about the business of being the first – and so far only – female referee in the country’s second tier, and has her eye firmly on making history by repeating the feat by making the step up to the Top 14.

The 35-year-old La Rochelle native is among the refereeing team for this year’s Women’s Six Nations. She is also a pioneer in her field, and is happy to be seen as a role model for young girls and women in the sport.

“I’m the first woman to have a professional contract with the French Rugby Federation and to have refereed at a World Cup as a central referee,” she said.

“Little by little, things are moving forward, the position of women is progressing. If I take the example of Stéphanie Frappart in football, who is now in Ligue 1 and one of the best referees in the world, it’s true that sport, at least today, is opening its doors.

“I tell myself that, maybe, I’m breaking down doors and that those who come after me will have an easier path to progress in refereeing.”

Groizeleau turned to refereeing in 2009 after an injury ended her playing career. She is into her third season in the ProD2, having worked her way up the ranks, and said overall the reaction to her has been positive.

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“Many of my colleagues have supported me and still support me today,” she said. “We’ll never stop people, you know, who are jealous, from criticising me because they might think I got this position because I’m a woman.

“In France that’s not the main criterion – it is to perform well on the pitch and I think that’s what helped me get into ProD2. You can’t referee in the professional sector just by being a woman, it won’t work.”

Colleague and friend Hollie Davidson made headlines this year for becoming the first female assistant referee in a senior men’s Six Nations match. But, while Groizeleau has nothing but admiration for the Scot, she finds inspiration elsewhere.

“For me, Joy Neville was the precursor of women’s refereeing. I admire what Hollie is doing because you have to realise that being the only woman in a group of men like that, it’s not a simple or easy thing to do.”

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Naturally, the conversation turns to her own ambitions and the French Top 14, where it appears she still has work to do to be a central referee – though she has been an assistant.

“Today, you really have to dominate the ProD2 to feel comfortable in the top flight. I think I’ve still got some things to learn so that, one day, I will make the grade.”

For the moment, focus turns to the Women’s Six Nations. Groizeleau was in action on the opening weekend in Parma, when Italy welcomed current champions and hot favourites England.

Speaking about her preparations for the tournament, she said: “There’s the physical part, of course, with several training sessions a week. I also talk with a mental coach because refereeing matches in English requires a lot of mental energy. I have to be prepared to deal with that without creating extra fatigue.”

The Women’s Six Nations has drawn increasingly bigger crowds in recent years, potentially opening up the tournament’s refereeing teams to more harassment, both on and off the pitch.

“It’s happened to me,” she said. “In the end, it comes mainly from the public, there is very little from the players or the coaching staff.”

“You get the impression that the public come to the edge of the pitch to let off steam and free themselves from the tensions of their working week. That may be so, but at the same time, they allow themselves certain liberties in what they say, which can sometimes be a bit harsh.”

Groizeleau acknowledges the efforts to stamp out abuse aimed at referees, saying: “We’ve seen a lot of clubs putting out press releases recently on social networks, asking their fans to be much more respectful towards referees and opposing clubs. Because, let’s face it, this is a strong value that has always existed in rugby. It’s a shame that we’re reaching excesses today that we’ve never seen before.

“Some people say it’s an evolution in society. I find that hard to understand. For me, it’s just a mark of respect. We don’t accept other people’s mistakes these days and [fans are] even very hard on their players. You have to realise that referees are still human: that we’re not infallible and that we try to limit mistakes but they can still happen.”

Groizeleau resolutely backs the use of the fourth official and technology to support the referee in the centre of the pitch. “It can really help in situations that are a little dubious or to help clarify things, either to reassure us and say ‘no there’s no problem’, ‘it’s the right decision’, or for me to check something.”

While the support system helps existing referees, the reality is there aren’t enough match officials to go around. According to the latest figures, there is a shortage of around 200 referees in French rugby, though regional ‘discovery’ competitions are trying to engage more teenagers nationwide.

Groizeleau thinks the clubs are also crucial to boosting recruitment. “It’s true that we need people to take up refereeing,” she said. “We need to be closer to the clubs and the game. In other words, we need to stop making referees separate from the pitch.

“If you are involved in your club, it might help to get the message across and encourage other people in the club to take up refereeing. That’s where the human side of passing on your passion to others comes in.”

She may not yet have what it takes to referee in the Top 14 (though it’s only a matter of time), but passion for what she does is one thing the quietly spoken Groizeleau does not lack. She’s fiercely proud of everything she has achieved to date.

“I wanted to pursue a career as a player but couldn’t. I ended up pursuing a career as a referee, experiencing incredible things, travelling the world, meeting lots of people. There are very few of us who can make a living from our passion, so it’s an important thing,” she said.

“I tell myself that I’m not yet at the end of my road and that I’ve still got lots of great things to experience and to share.

“For me, what’s important is that, over and above my personal project, it’s also a family project. It’s important that I have the support of my partner and my daughter, who fully share my passion.”

Groizeleau featured again in the Women’s Six Nations as assistant referee for England vs Wales last weekend, and will take charge of the penultimate-round clash between England and Ireland at Twickenham on 20th April.

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