The Big Interview: Joy Neville - Breaking up the boys club

When she retired from playing rugby, Joy Neville scoffed at the consolation of reffing. But a friend set her a challenge she couldn’t back away from. And now she blazes a trail to new milestones on an almost weekly basis. Yet having gone full-time with the IRFU, she’s not afraid to admit when she’s made a mistake
The Big Interview: Joy Neville - Breaking up the boys club

She could hear the sniggering in the corner. Some guy like Cam Newton, thinking it was funny to hear a female referee talk about straight dives and good binds. Funny! It left Joy Neville in something of a bind herself. Should she just let it pass or challenge the smirker in front of the whole dressing room?

That’s when experience kicked in. A tough experience, a tough lesson learned.

A few months earlier she had been in a similar situation giving another pre-match briefing to a team. That time she had let it go. And all through her warm-up she berated herself. That she hadn’t more respect for herself. If she couldn’t respect herself, how could she expect to get respect out here on the field?

“If that ever happens again…” Now it had happened again. In a British & Irish Cup game in Doncaster.

Neville paused in offering her instructions and swivelled her head towards the offending party. Awkward silence.

“Do you find something funny?”

‘Cam’ turned redder than the Munster jersey Neville wore as a player for over a decade.

All of his teammates burst out laughing at, rather than with, him.

“Right,” said Neville, “can we carry on?” And then she did.

She hasn’t stopped since. Learning. Winning respect. Getting bigger games and gigs.

This time last year she became the first woman to officiate in a European men’s game when she was an assistant referee for the Challenge Cup clash of Bath and Bristol, live on Sky. Back in August, she refereed the women’s World Cup final.

Tomorrow she’s on the line for the Champions Cup tie of Montpellier and Exeter. Next Wednesday she’ll become one of the first two women to referee a full men’s rugby international, taking charge of the Conference Two clash of Norway and Denmark just days after Spain’s Alhambra Nievas oversees today’s meeting of Norway and Finland.

This past week she was also unveiled as one of seven referees who have taken up professional contracts with the IRFU.

And yet, she’ll say, the proudest moment of her refereeing career to date was last November when she refereed an AIL Division One game between Cork Constitution and Clontarf. That was the highlight because that was the goal.

Neville had only retired from playing for Ireland when David McHugh, the then IRFU referees manager, floated the idea of her taking up the whistle. Neville scoffed. If she no longer had the appetite to play, why would she want to referee? As a courtesy she told McHugh they’d check back in with each other in a further six to nine months, in case she’d change her mind, though she very much doubted such a prospect.

But then she started to miss the goal and routine of a match at the weekend. And then she picked up the phone to a respected rugby figure and asked: Did you ever see a female refereeing in the AIL, Division One?

“No, Joy,” he said. “Not in my lifetime.”

Once she put the phone down, she picked it straight back up to call McHugh. “I’m in. All in.” That was just four years ago. And yes, her anonymous friend is still alive.

“I don’t know whether it’s something genetic inside me or what but I love a challenge, especially if it has never been done by someone else,” she says. “So as soon as I heard ‘Not in my lifetime’, that was my aim.”

Neville has always been disposed to being something of a trailblazer and breaking up and into the all-boys club, even if it has meant shipping her share of knocks along the way.

Take her nose. When she lists off all the injuries she’s sustained through the years, you’d assume the broken nose was like the medial ligaments or the thumb or the leg she broke in two places — something picked up in the duty of playing for club, province, or country. Not true.

That came about when she was nine, the only girl in a rugby-mad home on Limerick’s North Circular Rd, playing a game of tap-and-go in the back garden with her four older brothers. Yet that didn’t deter her. She’d continue to constantly play with them, plague them.

“I was happiest when I was mucking around with the lads.”

The problem was there was no women’s team to muck around with, or even follow; the national team was all but invisible at the time. At 15 she heard there was a team in Shannon but when she showed up one night outside the old Thomond Park, there was no one there; training must have been in Coonagh instead.

At 17, she ventured out there again on the urging of the former rugby and soccer international, Jackie McCarthy. This time she had showed up to the right place. “And sure straight away I fell in love with it.”

Within a year she had made the national squad, playing at No8, but it wasn’t like she had made the big time. In those early years the goal for Ireland against an England wasn’t to win but to maybe score a try, lose by only 50 instead of 80.

She remembers a conversation she had with some younger players in her final season of 2013, the same year they won the Six Nations. They were complaining about something or other, something petty.

Here they were with nutritionists, video analysts, strength and conditioning, being put up in hotels. She explained to them that back in the mid-noughties, if ever the team was training in Limerick, her living room would be full of bodies, strung all over her couches or on the floor.

That’s where Irish women’s rugby was coming from. But in its own way that was part of the magic of the journey. The slumming. The struggle.

Each year they made incremental progress. In 2004 they played England in Twickenham as the curtain-raiser to the men’s monumental team over Clive Woodward’s World Cup winning team. Two years earlier, England had smashed them 79-0 in Worcester.

This time they held England to 51 points while scoring two tries themselves, one of them from Neville.

And it had been in Twickenham. OK, so they were kicked out of the dressing rooms immediately after the game and no one had reserved tickets for them to watch the men’s game, but at least they had played in the great ground. And to score a try there as she had? Magic.

The following year they played in Murrayfield after the men’s game. They’d even avoid the wooden spoon, beating Wales in the old Arms Park. In 2007 they’d win two games. In 2009 they’d win three.

“We went from scoring no tries to scoring tries only from pick and goes, to then backs scoring tries, playing exciting, expansive, clinical rugby. Looking back, the thing I’m most proud of is how we progressed as a team.”

In 2013 it would culminate in winning the Grand Slam. The night before the final match of the campaign in Milan, Neville was presented with her 70th jersey by team manager, Philip Doyle. Once the team meeting was over, Neville bolted to her own room, in tears. She hadn’t told anyone lest it detract from the match and goal in hand but that would be her last green jersey.

“I just felt my time had come to go. It was taking me four days to recover from matches and I wasn’t enjoying the training anymore. And my priorities had changed. I had met my partner and things that never bothered me in the early years like missing my nieces’ and nephews’ christenings and birthdays were now bothering me.”

And so she bowed out, on a high she could never have envisaged even five years earlier. A Grand Slam champion. If the World Cup had been later on that same year she might have stayed on but it wasn’t until the following year.

When Ireland famously beat New Zealand in that tournament, Neville was a spectator, a former player, and an even more disillusioned referee. If anyone told her that she’d be refereeing the final of the following World Cup, she’d never have believed them. What counted then was that someone believed in her. If Neville has emerged as refereeing’s Katie Taylor, then Helen O’Reilly was its Deidre Gogarty.

“I’d been refereeing only three months at that point but was already going to give it up. Then Helen O’Reilly came over to me and Simona [Neville’s then fiancée and now wife] at the match. Helen was refereeing at that World Cup, the only Irish referee there, and she said, ‘How’s the refereeing going, Joy?’ And I said, ‘I’m not enjoying it. I don’t think it’s for me.’ But she said, ‘Joy, please stick with it.’

“I only found recently that she went up to Simona again and said, ‘You have to make her stick with this.’ And that blew me away. That she took it upon herself to push Simona because she could see something in me that I didn’t see. So I stuck with it and something clicked and I fell in love with it.”

What clicked? That instead of judging herself and her mistakes, to just learn from them instead. She hadn’t been anywhere near as bad as she thought she’d been but because she hadn’t been perfect she’d thought she’d been awful.

“After playing 11 years of international rugby, I knew the standard of refereeing necessary and I knew I wasn’t anywhere near it. And that prevented me from enjoying it.

“I was looking for the perfect game. Then about 18 months ago I decided, ‘You know what, there’s no such thing. You’re human.’ And since that moment I’ve refereed a lot better than what I did looking for the perfect game.”

Schools rugby offered up some hard lessons. She distinctly remembers a Munchins-Ard Scoil Rís Munster Senior Cup tie up in Young Munster’s. The crowd and his father in on top of her, challenging every call.

They weren’t happy with her and she wasn’t happy with herself. It was a schools game. If a player went down, you didn’t have to rush it on. Player welfare, especially at that age, was paramount. Take your time. Let things breathe.

And she didn’t have to be so stern. When she started listening back to her communication, she found her voice extremely harsh. Being assertive would have been fine. She was being outright aggressive.

“At the start because I was female I was worried that if I was too open and approachable, male players would take advantage of that. But when I heard myself back I could hear the sharpness in my voice. You couldn’t question me about anything. I realised then, ‘You know, the only person here who has an issue that you’re female is yourself.’

“If you’re going to influence the behaviours of the teams, you need to have a working relationship with the captain, so I can go to them, ‘Look, that’s the second time there’s been hands in the ruck; just be careful in this area. Do you understand? Perfect. Thanks.’

“Or they can go to you, ‘Ref, do you mind taking a look at the side entries.’ ‘Yeah, no worries, I’ll look for it.’ ‘Thanks very much, ref.’

“It’s not down to gender, it’s down to performance, it’s down to you doing a job. And if I don’t do the job right, I will get abuse — and rightly so, to a certain degree anyway.”

If she was a bit too harsh on the players starting off, then she found her assessors were being too soft on her.

“They were being far too easy on me. I remember saying it to David McHugh: ‘You’re being too easy on me. We’d analyse stuff together and my volume of clips would be much larger than his. And one day I said to him, ‘Don’t hold back. Say what you think to me. I’m not going to get upset over what you say to me. I’m going to learn and get better from what you say to me.’

“So that’s the relationship we’ve had. And it was hard at times to hear certain things. He’d say, ‘Are you annoyed with that?’ And I’d say, ‘Yeah, I am, but I’m fine. Plough on.’”

And that’s her approach to everything now. In the early days if she made a mistake, she struggled to park it, would lose focus, and compound the error by missing another call. “You make a mistake as a player and you have your buddy to clear up the mess, or to tap you on the back, ‘Next one, it’s fine.’ Make a mistake as a referee and it’s a lot more identifiable, it’s a lot more isolated. It’s a lonely place to be.”

The last thing she needed was to berate herself. Now she’s more like a teammate, a buddy, to herself. Next one, it’s fine.

She’ll even admit a mistake to players. In fact she prides herself on it.

“As a player it was one of my pet hates when a referee would be adamant they had made the right decision when it was blatant that they hadn’t. And that has followed me as a referee. If I make a mistake, I have no problem saying, ‘Lads, my bad. I missed it.’ I’ve done that on a few occasions. Thankfully, only a few, but players respect that and I think it’s important to have that relationship with players.”

She’s a full-time ref now, finishing up last May as a development coach with LIT to take up her contract with the IRFU. If she’s not travelling or officiating, she’s training, usually out in UL with three other full-time coaches. She reckons she’s much fitter than she was as a player; she has to be, to be up with the play and make good decisions.

She assiduously reviews every game: her fitness, her decisions, her communication, her law. In her journal she has all the rules written out, paraphrased, and reads them every day. “If I make a mistake, I need to know that at least it wasn’t because of my lack of preparation. At the World Cup I knew there were nine referees and while my overall goal was to be the one to get the final, it wasn’t my priority. It was to get the fundamentals right — my fitness, my law, my communication.”

And those basics still remain her focus. Over our chat in Limerick, she’s congratulated on her latest appointment by several well-wishers, and though she’s been blown away by the support she’s received over the years, she’s not about the accolades or attention.

“I still have a job to do. This week, myself and Alhambra Nievas have to go out there and referee well so that we open opportunities for further females to get international games. I think we’ll have really succeeded when there isn’t so much hype about there being female referees.”

The same way no one questions why Katie Taylor or any woman is in a boxing ring. The same way no player now sniggers when Neville’s in their dressing room.

More in this section