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Sara Cox's journey to becoming a history-making referee

By Lucy Lomax
Referee Sara Cox during the Gallagher Premiership Rugby match between Harlequins and Worcester Warriors (Photo by Henry Browne/Getty Images)

Sara Cox is someone who doesn’t shy away from hard work and last weekend’s feat of becoming the first female referee to officiate a men’s Premiership match is testament to her dedication behind the scenes.


The occasion of refereeing Harlequins against Worcester saw the inevitable attention, media spotlight and social media conversation you’d expect when a rare and notable achievement is made, and Sara hopes her selection to officiate at the highest level of the men’s domestic game will inspire more women and girls to take up the whistle.

“It’s about exposure, if you can’t see what I’m doing at the top level and know that that’s a possibility, how can you expect anyone else to be involved and understand?” said the former fly-half and winger.

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“It’s about awareness and engagement with people and showing people the journey that I’ve been on, that there is no barrier to entry and to have a go and see where they get.”

So what exactly goes into becoming the world’s first full-time professional female referee?

“The thing I found most beneficial (becoming a referee) is talking to people, to players after games, to fans, to other colleagues and just absorbing as much information as possible.

“As a referee it’s not that we just go out on a Saturday and that’s the end of it, there’s a whole review process and fitness process that goes on behind the scenes. Just getting out on a Saturday and refereeing a game is probably the easier bit.


“There’s a lot of preparation that goes in beforehand with regards to looking at teams and looking at games from previous weekends and sometimes from previous months to get an idea of how people want to play and clueing myself up with information around set piece, how that’s going to look and how I want to manage that.

“When we get to game day itself, there’s the engagement with the players beforehand and during the game, you’re always picking up and learning from things and looking at how you can keep facilitating that game without having too much involvement.

“Then afterwards we look back on our own games and decisions made, looking back on non-decisions where I’ve done nothing, to the errors that might have been made and what I might have been able to do differently.”


An ongoing process of learning and tweaking, with the occasion on Saturday one which Sara says she has gained a lot from.

“It was an unbelievable experience. I couldn’t have asked for much more. It was about showing them that I was there to do a job just as much as they were and showing them that I was prepared to facilitate that game of rugby.

“Each and every one of them after the game came up and shook my hand and said congratulations but when you’re in the heat of battle they don’t care who you are they just want to you to referee the game.”

And with plenty of experience to lean on, is there a difference to officiating the men’s game to the women’s?

“The speed was there (at the weekend), they are two teams that want to play quickly and you can see that when a penalty is given and they’ve tapped and gone and I tailor my training with being able to keep up with that as there’s nothing worse than arriving late and making the second or third decision rather than the first.

“I’ve been involved in some really quick games before and we’ve found that in the women’s game there is a lot of ball in play time, so that’s a lot of time to have to keep moving about, albeit there is a slight difference in the speed in which that’s executed.”

As a trailblazer and someone accomplishing something away from the norm, there can be negativity or backlash, but Sara admits all the experiences on her journey have been positive.

“I haven’t experienced any negative reactions, everyone has been so positive and wanting to see more and for the momentum to continue. You’re always going to have differences in opinions as we’re all humans. But why does it matter if I’m female?”

Sara showed last weekend that the door is open for females who want to follow the same path and that gender is no barrier. Hopefully through this exposure and Sara’s influence as a role model, the game sees more women and girls encouraged to take the refereeing route.


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