Trailblazing match official Gabriel Lee continues to lead by example in Asia

We spoke to the Rugby World Cup Sevens 2009 final referee about her career in the game and helping the next generation of Asian match officials flourish.

Gabriel Lee wants to use her platform to help the next generation of female match officials in Asia, but that does not mean she is quite ready to hang up her own whistle just yet.

Lee, who refereed the women’s final at Rugby World Cup Sevens 2009, stepped away from the international stage four years ago to get married and start a family.

She is now the proud mother of Else, who is three, and Rudolf, 20 months, and has returned to work full-time at Hong Kong’s immigration department.

The Rio 2016 Olympic Games match official is also back involved with refereeing, having been appointed to the Asia Rugby Selection and Appointments Panel, something she admits came as a surprise.

“It will be good because I'm the only female on that panel. So, I appreciate that I can probably give some noise from a female point of view,” Lee told World Rugby.

Not retired yet

Lee officiated at two RWC Sevens tournaments, Rugby World Cup 2010, Rio 2016 and also took charge of a men’s test between Kyrgyzstan and Mongolia in 2009.

She worked as an assistant referee for several other men’s test matches as well and hopes that her experiences on the pitch will help convince her colleagues on the panel that women deserve opportunities at that level.

“At the time I [worked with] World Rugby, I worked with refs much younger than me and it doesn't mean that my experience is more than theirs,” Lee added. 

“But in Asia, I probably am more experienced compared with them and it will be good that it makes some noise, because now you can see, across the whole world, they don't mind letting a female referee a men's game. 

“For a long, long time in Asia it was difficult for the referee to do that because they would be worried that we are not fit enough, whether that is physically or mentally fit enough, to fit in the game. 

“It would be good if they see me as an example that I got an opportunity to referee a men's game in Asia.”

Lee might want to help the next generation of female match officials on their journey to the top, but she is also keen to point out that she has never officially announced her retirement.

Citing the example of Nicky Inwood, who was 44 when she refereed at Rugby World Cup 2014, Lee says she is hopeful that her children might one day get to see her officiating an international match.

“Hopefully I can aim for 15s because sevens, it can be more of a physical challenge for age,” the 40-year-old explained.

“But 15s, it can be possible to make it happen. I'm not really forcing it, but I try my best to be a role model to my kids. 

“So even though I've had a baby, afterwards mummy still can go back to do some reffing. That's my hope, so I try to do my best and let's see if we get an opportunity.”

Historic memories

Lee’s proudest moment on a rugby pitch remains Australia’s 15-10 defeat of New Zealand in the RWC Sevens 2009 final in Dubai, which she refereed only four years after first picking up a whistle.

Having been introduced to rugby as a 15-year-old at school, Lee was encouraged by her club to attend a Hong Kong Rugby Football Union (HKRFU) course designed to unearth female referees in 2005.

She agreed to go along primarily to learn more about the game and its laws, but her enjoyment of refereeing, coupled with a realisation that it was her best hope of appearing at a Rugby World Cup, ensured that two years later she stopped playing to focus on officiating.

Just two years on, Lee led out the teams at The Sevens Stadium as New Zealand and Australia contested the first ever RWC Sevens women’s final.

“The honest thing is, I think I'm pretty lucky,” Lee said. “My referee coach, he saw something happen.

“When I started focusing on reffing in 2007 he could see that in 2009 we had the first women’s Rugby World Cup Sevens happening. 

“So, he's really pushing me [but] he hasn’t told me that, so I haven't really got a pressure on that, and he sent me to some big international tournaments in Dubai and Singapore. Those two tournaments are usually for our top panel. 

“He sent me to all of those and finally, I got selected to do the first women’s Rugby World Cup Sevens.”

Lee says it “felt good” to be appointed to the final on the basis of her performances at the tournament but admits she felt nervous heading into the showpiece match.

“I just felt, ‘Oh my God, the spotlight’s on me’,” she said. 

“I can't make any mistakes, I can destroy the game by my decisions, so I really need to do my best. And, at that time we didn’t have a monitor, no TMO, so it's all about the team of five. 

“So, it's really according to my in-goal and ARs (assistant referees) about how we cooperate with [each other], and it's a tight game, sudden death, score in the corner and then golden point won the game. 

“So, until my final whistle and when Paddy [O’Brien] came to shake my hand and say congratulations, that's the moment I could relax.”

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, Lee misses those moments and the camaraderie of being part of a team of match officials. 

It is why she hasn’t given up hope of making a return to the 15s pitch. But, she is also excited to use her expertise to help young Asian referees flourish on the biggest stages.

“I think I can share my sevens experience and help the young kids to come through,” Lee said.

“It would be good if we can get some young referees ready in Asia and then we can let World Rugby see them, and then they've got a choice to get onto the World Series. 

“That's what we want to see. We always want to see some more Asian faces on the Series.”

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Last updated: Oct 16, 2021, 6:55:25 AM
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