Natasha Olsen and Cristiana Futuro Mühlbauer represent the spirit of Brazilian women’s rugby – transforming their love for the game into multiple roles within it.
Former international players, today they represent their country in the first Sudamérica Rugby’s Women’s Panel.
“Including Natasha and Cris in the panel is a great opportunity for two former internationals to showcase and share their experience with the panel,” says Joaquín Montes, Regional Refereeing Manager.
“They have been quality referees for a number of years and it is a pleasure to have their will to learn, spirit and love of the game in our group.”
It was when she was studying at a school mate’s house that Futuro Mühlbauer (first row, third from the left in main image) experienced rugby for the first time. “He was a huge fan and I got hooked instantly. A couple of months later, women’s rugby started at the Niteroi Rugby Football Club and I was delighted to join them,” the former handball player recalls of her first steps with the oval ball in 1996.
Olsen (back row, second from left) was literally born at the Sao Paulo Athletic Club, where her father played football but her uncles were rugby players. Another club, Pasteur, had a brief women’s rugby programme which Olsen joined. But when that folded, she persuaded the club to restart it. That was in 1998.
Those early years for Futuro Mühlbauer and Olsen – one on the Guanabara Bay that joins Niteroi and Rio de Janeiro, the other in the huge São Paulo – were of fun and discovery.
Having played against each other in tournaments and festivals, they soon both played in Brazil’s first national team together.
“The first South American sevens tournament was played in Barquisimeto, Venezuela. I travelled as manager, but once there we found out that squads could be a couple of players larger; fortunately, I had taken my boots with me,” recalls Olsen.
Looking at that first team photo (main image), nine of the eleven players are still strongly connected to the game.
“What we lived was very strong,” says Futuro Mühlbauer, whose younger sister Beatriz or 'Baby' (back row, fifth from left) is still a member of the national team 16 years later.
Both Olsen and Futuro Mühlbauer were regulars in a team that began dominating the regional sevens scene that continues to this day. Both went to the inaugural women's Rugby World Cup Sevens in Dubai in 2009, as well as taking part in countless different international tournaments.
Hanging up the boots
Futuro Mühlbauer retired from international rugby upon returning from Dubai, yet continued to play for her club for the following three seasons. She found refereeing was the best way to stay connected with the game. Her former team-mate took the same road:
“If there was no-one available, I would referee age-grade. And when I stopped playing I re-took refereeing courses, as it allowed me to stay on the field. I get more nervous as a spectator than when I played. This was a good solution,” says Olsen, also now a journalist specialising in environment issues.
Futuro Mühlbauer, who also works as a physiotherapist, now lives in Florianópolis. She says: “I was involved in the first steps of everything relating to women’s rugby in Brazil. Playing, coaching, refereeing. Being a ref allows me to continue having fun and being connected to the girls. I love running, being close to the action and the energy you find in a tournament.
“Rugby gave me a lot and I had to give back doing something that also makes me happy.”
While both have refereed at the country’s highest men’s standard, the national 15s championship, they agree that “playing is magic, the best there is.”
COVID-19 has affected many plans at different levels. Rugby does not escape that current reality. Even though there is no rugby being played, Sudamérica Rugby and World Rugby are working with a group of 12 elite women’s referees from six countries, meeting every fortnight with Alhambra Nievas, World Rugby’s Referee Development Manager, and Montes.
“Being a member of the panel fills me with pride and pushes me to learn more, sharing with the other girls; it is the highest honour we have in South America,” says Olsen.
To which Futuro Mühlbauer adds: “I didn’t expect to be included, but fortunately they invited me. I am very, very happy. It is a dream come true.”
Experience playing at the highest regional and international level offers both a very special vision. “It makes it simpler to understand a game and allows us to be more empathic with players, both male and female,” concludes Olsen, with total agreement from Futuro Mühlbauer.
Two rugby pioneers that continue to open doors in their country and the region.