Joy Neville was the referee for the first game of the 2022 Women’s Six Nations, but this test felt different to her.
As she stood on the pitch for the opening game between Scotland and England in Edinburgh last month, she felt a tear run down her face. Neville was TMO for Wales against Italy in the men’s Six Nations game in March and she also officiated an U20 game. But this was her first time of refereeing a Senior Six Nations game since the birth of her son Alfie last June. She didn’t know if she would ever return to that position.
“I just looked around and thought, ‘Well done.’ You’ve got your body back in shape, you’re not where you want to be yet, but you’re getting there. And it was a proud moment to be back there and officiate a women’s international,” Neville told the Irish Independent. “Seven months ago I didn’t know if I could do it. It was just an emotional moment. I was very happy to represent my family, my little boy and the union (IRFU).”
Neville returned to training six weeks after giving birth last summer. She had previously spoken to Dudley Phillips, her boss, and IRFU performance director David Nucifora about her plans to have a baby with her wife Simona.
“I wanted to know where I was and I wanted to know that I could get a contract in a high-performance environment and have a family and come back to that. And I didn’t know if they saw that as an opportunity or if it was a possibility, and those are my words,” says Neville. “And what I loved about both[Phillips and Nucifora]was, ‘Well, why can’t you go back to where you were?’ And that’s exactly what I was told. So I was very grateful for the support.”
Even with this support, Neville had doubts about her ability to return to refereeing at the highest level and whether she wanted to be away from her family. She looked at various career options and even went for another interview, but she didn’t get it. Her confidence wasn’t where it was before. “As a referee in the men’s professional game, they’re quick and I’ve struggled with them at the best of times – not to mention squirting a kid out and then regaining that fitness. It was very intimidating and I felt like my confidence wasn’t as high as it normally is because it was the unknown. Johnny Lacey – my trainer – was excellent.
“I will always remember the conversation I had with Johnny. I sat down with him, had a coffee and said: I don’t have the confidence, I don’t know if I could go back to that. Without taking the job I applied for, part of the reason I chose this job was that I didn’t believe I would be able to return to this environment. Part of my emotion that day (at the W6N game in Edinburgh) was ‘thank god I didn’t get that job’. I came back here and did it and I didn’t know I could.
Gráinne Crabtree is in her seventh season as a rugby referee. The Derry woman is a Level Four national referee and officiates games in the AIL’s Division Two. Unlike Neville, it’s not her full-time job, it’s her hobby. Crabtree had their first son, David, last August. Like Neville, she appreciates the support she received from the IRFU and her provincial department in becoming a referee again after maternity. There were others, however, that she was happy to prove wrong.
“For me, I had a lot of body confidence issues coming back to reefing. Obviously my external appearance has changed a bit since the (caesarean section). I was having issues with my hips — one of my hips didn’t go back in, so I’m constantly trying to rehabilitate it,” says Crabtree.
“In my head I know certain people didn’t think I could come back and that was kind of my motivation because I love proving people wrong! So, it’s like, OK, this person said, “Oh, they’re never going to referee again,” and I said, “I’m going to referee again!”. I’m not leaving the national body because I’ve had a baby, I’m leaving on my terms and it won’t be because of baby David. That’s because I’ve decided to stop refereeing.”
What Crabtree and Neville have both found – to an extent – is that now that their lives have changed, they are less self-critical. “You don’t have the time to analyze yourself when you get home because you have someone else taking up your time,” says Crabtree. “The focus changes completely. As soon as I stop being “Grainne the umpire”, I’m “Grainne the mummy” again.
Neville feels she enjoys her work as a referee more.
“All referees have something in common – we are our worst critics. For me personally, that took away from my joy because I was so overly critical after the game. And since I’ve had Alfie, I’ve allowed myself to enjoy it a lot more because I understand how lucky I am to be back.”
https://www.independent.ie/sport/rugby/i-understand-how-lucky-i-am-to-be-back-in-it-ref-neville-gets-more-joy-from-her-job-after-becoming-a-mum-41536097.html ‘I understand how lucky I am to be back’ – Referee Neville is enjoying her job more after becoming a mother