The HSBC World Rugby Women’s Sevens Series 2019 gets back underway in Sydney on Friday following a two-month break but for referee Amy Perrett the wait has been much longer.
Perrett, who gave birth to her first child last March, has not officiated a World Series match in almost two years but takes charge of the tournament opener between Ireland and Russia at the Spotless Stadium.
It will be an emotional occasion for the Sydney native, who is yet to take the whistle at her home tournament, with her mother and 11-month-old son Liam among family members watching on from the stands.
“First game, family will be in the crowd, there’ll be a sense of accomplishment and then just get on with my job,” Perrett, who has been on the series since its inception in 2012, said. “I’m not nervous but I just want to get out there and get it done.”
She had targeted a much more rapid return to refereeing but plans to officiate the women’s Bledisloe Cup tie between Australia and New Zealand last August were shelved as the rigours of her post-natal training regime became apparent.
Perrett says she “decided to enjoy the pregnancy” and subsequently put on weight during her time away from the game. Returning meant she was required to teach her body how to move again.
“I had to rebuild,” she said. “A lot of it at first was very boring, I had to record it on my phone. Laps of the oval, just walking laps.
Inspiration to follow
“So, I’d play my music, try to power walk as quick as I could and once I did that pain-free I was able to graduate to a jog-walk and then just slowly graduated in each thing.”
During her recovery Perrett was aided by a close-knit family, including twin brother Paul and husband Craig, but she also took heart from the success of another Rugby Australia employee who took a break from the game to have a child, Nicole Beck.
Not only did Wallaroos winger Beck return from childbirth to win a gold medal at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, she did so while unwittingly carrying her second baby.
“Nicole was a bit of an inspiration to see how quickly she was able to bounce back from having her first child to win a gold medal,” Perrett added.
“I watched her at a local (tournament) and I was like ‘Wow she’s only just had a baby, she’s amazing!’ She was playing so well. So, it was kind of like if she could do it, I could do. If you see it you can be it.”
For Perrett, retirement was not an option. “I’ve always wanted to come back to this, I enjoy this.
“It’s my job and I feel it makes me a happy, better person, and if I’m a happier better person then that reflects on my boy. So that was never going to be a question whether I retired.
“And unfortunately, I think some girls in the past they couldn’t because it wasn’t a full-time job for them, rugby was their hobby where they were able to get to the heights but not paid professionally.”
Beck and Perrett have shown that it is possible for women involved with the sport to start a family with the full support of their union.
As a full-time employee of Rugby Australia, Perrett – the first woman to assistant referee in Super Rugby – lauds the assistance she has received from the union, which includes a trainer and access to physio sessions whenever they were necessary, and World Rugby's match officials team.
Also helping to give her a helping hand during her return has been fellow Sydney resident and World Rugby Referee Award 2018 winner Angus Gardner.
“He’s incredibly supportive,” she said. “If he’s in town he’s been there every step of the way. At training just throwing support behind me and I know he’d love to see me in [the Super Rugby] arena, which is pretty cool.
“He’s one of the top refs in the world, so to have someone like him back you is pretty amazing.”
Female role models
There have been texts of encouragement too from her world series colleagues, and she is keen for her son to grow up around strong female role models.
Although, English referee Sara Cox is said to be devastated that she has not yet been able to meet Liam in person because “she talks about how she’s going to be the naughty aunty who teaches him all bad things and gives him sugar,” Perrett said, laughing.
Perrett first picked up a whistle as a 13-year-old because she was no longer allowed to play with boys and she is glad that gender is becoming less of an issue in the sport.
Alongside Cox, Alhambra Nieves (now World Rugby's Referee Talent Development Manager) and Joy Neville she blazed a trail for female officials, and is determined to continue that journey. First, though, her sights are set on refereeing at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.
Perrett, who took charge of the Women’s Rugby World Cup 2014 final in France, worked at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games and wants to share the special experience this time around with her Australian colleagues.
“My main focus at the moment will be going to Tokyo,” she said.
“I was fortunate enough to go to Rio and that was an incredible experience. I think Tokyo is going to be even better. That is what I’d love to do.
“We’ve got two other female Australian referees in the group at the moment and I think that’s my main goal, that all three of us, not just myself - I feel like there’s a responsibility because I have been helping them in the past - all three of us need to go and that would be very special.”
But first, Perrett will finally get the chance to referee her home event - how will she feel by Sunday?
“Just a sense of accomplishment that I was able to go through what I went through and still being able to do what I used to do,” she said.
“I guess that’s the big thing that you can give out. What you put your body through during the pregnancy, after the pregnancy, sometimes you doubt that you’ll ever be who you used to be and to a certain extent you aren’t.
“I’ve got a completely different mindset around life and what I want to achieve – in the positive.
“So I guess I put less pressure on myself and I’m just enjoying this second opportunity to be in this environment.”