Breaking glass ceilings: Sara Cox and Nikki O’Donnell on life as test rugby referees

Ahead of the second weekend of the Women’s Six Nations 2021, we caught up with the English match officials to discuss their careers in the game.

Refereeing is often seen as a lonely pursuit, a match official with a whistle attempting to keep the peace for 80 minutes.

But, is that always the case? Rugby Football Union referees Sara Cox and Nikki O’Donnell have a wealth of shared history, having first met during a schools tournament in Sheffield in 2007.

Since then the pair have risen through the ranks and both were selected to the match officials panel for this month’s Women’s Six Nations.

“Nikki and I have sort of seen rugby, and especially women's rugby, come into its own and start growing,” Cox told World Rugby. 

“You always come across the same people and, you know, we turned up at the same tournament as each other [in 2007]. 

“And, then you go on and you turn up at another tournament with each other and then all of a sudden you end up in the same refereeing group as people. And, then it just kind of keeps going from there.”

‘Two completely different journeys’

Cox and O’Donnell had taken very different paths to that tournament in Sheffield. The former was a good enough player in her youth to have an England trial, while the latter only discovered rugby at university and picked up a whistle so she could familiarise herself with its laws.

It was Cox, five years O’Donnell’s junior, who graduated to the test arena first when she served on the match officials team at Rugby World Cup 2010, at the age of 20.

She has since officiated at France 2014 and Ireland 2017, on the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series, at the Olympic Games, in the English Premiership and overseen a men’s test match. 

In 2016, meanwhile, Cox became the first female referee to be contracted by the RFU.

“We've got two completely different journeys,” O’Donnell said. “The nice thing is Coxy's there, she's breaking glass ceilings regularly.

“She’s out visible for everybody, much more so than myself. For the game, and for me, it creates opportunity and it makes you realise that actually there is further that you can progress within the game, there are different things that you can achieve.”

She added: “We've got some really promising young referees, male and female, coming through. 

“[They] are seeing the likes of Sara and the full-time guys — and some of the guys who are part-time in that professional set up as well — that it is something you can achieve if you commit to it and you work hard and you listen to the guidance and advice that's there.”

O’Donnell officiated in her first international match, as an assistant referee, during the Women’s Six Nations 2013, and the pair have since been on the same match officials team during six tests, as well as several sevens tournaments.

“There's definitely been times that Nikki's dragged me through tournaments, made sure that I'm still going,” Cox added.

“It's having a familiar face and being able to bounce ideas off of each other and making sure that in the evenings you've got somebody to call upon if you need some help with something. 

“And, having that rapport already makes that a little bit easier.”

Studying for the future

Being full-time, Cox is able to dedicate more of her time to training and match preparation than many of her female contemporaries. 

She is keen not to waste any of it, though, and is also studying for a master’s in performance psychology at the University of Edinburgh, from her home in Exeter.

“Probably the furthest point away from where I actually live!” Cox joked.

“I want to make sure that I've used my spare time that I've got in this job to bring me up to speed with academia, to learn new things and so I can actually give back to the business that I go for rather than it just being, ‘OK, well, I was a professional referee and that's all I offer’.

“At least now I can say that I've got something to take with me and I can help drive that forward.”

As a captain in the Queen Alexandra’s Royal Army Nursing Corps, O’Donnell is grateful to an understanding boss and having the adaptability to fulfil all of her refereeing commitments.

“Every week looks different to me,” she said. “Most of my time’s spent in the emergency department and I work my shifts around my travel requirements.

“So, if I need to bolster them, use a bit of annual leave or use a little bit of my military administrative time to have that flexibility, my boss is really good with that. 

“But, my primary job is working in A&E on early shifts, late shifts, long days. I've avoided night shifts this year so far, which is quite nice to try and help the balance with getting some training and different bits in there. But, it's fitting things around work rather than work creating the space for that.”

Role models

Both Cox and O’Donnell are due to referee next weekend, as the Women’s Six Nations 2021 pool stage comes to an end, Sara in Dublin for Ireland v France and Nikki in Glasgow for Scotland v Italy.

And, both are hoping to provide those looking to get into the game, whether it be as a referee, a player or behind the scenes, with a visible role model.

“I personally see more people wanting to get involved, and I think that's the important part,” Cox said.

“It's not for me to go and drive a specific gender or a specific race. It's for me to make sure, and I'm pretty sure this is the same with Nikki as well, that we drive forward the refereeing. We drive forward that you can be involved in the game in different ways. 

“It's not just about playing, it's not just about officiating, but it's also about being involved in, say, the back-end of rugby. The things that you don't always see but absolutely make it so that Nikki and I can go and function on a weekend.

“Without the likes of commercial sponsorship, without the likes of the media team, without the likes of the administration side of things, we can't go out there and we can't do that performance, and it's about the understanding that there is a big rugby picture and it's a big rugby family that you can be involved in. 

“And, if it's that somebody pays attention to myself or to Nikki, what we're doing on the pitch, but gives them an avenue into a job behind the scenes, then I think we've done what we've set out to do. 

“If I can get to the end of my career and I can turn around and say, well, there was one person that turned around and said, ‘I started paying more attention, I watched rugby because I saw you do something’, then I think I've gone out and I've achieved what I set out to achieve.”

So, do either Cox or O’Donnell have any advice for would-be referees? “Go for it!” Cox said.

“Do it,” O’Donnell added. “It’ll be difficult, it'll be fun, but you'll learn something about yourself if nothing else.”

READ MORE: Rugby World Cup 1991 30th anniversary: Today’s players reflect on women’s rugby pioneers >>

Last updated: Apr 9, 2021, 2:44:23 PM
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