There isn’t much Hollie Davidson hasn’t achieved as a match official, yet there remains one goal she is determined to add to her already impressive CV – a men’s Rugby World Cup.
In the last 12 months alone, Davidson has refereed finals at the Commonwealth Games, Rugby World Cup Sevens and Rugby World Cup 2021 while becoming an ever-more familiar face in the men’s game.
Davidson, who has regularly refereed matches in the United Rugby Championship (URC), led the first all-female team of officials in a European match when Scarlets hosted the Cheetahs in the Challenge Cup in January.
Reflecting on the past year, she admits it has been “a bit crazy” and “bumpy at times” but is justifiably very proud of what she has accomplished.
“When I got involved in reffing, I always wanted to try and push myself to become one of the best,” she told World Rugby. “Push boundaries, push perceptions and continue to challenge.”
The Scot will certainly continue to challenge perceptions over the next few months as she embarks on a busy working tour of South Africa and Europe.
Davidson is slated to work as an assistant referee in three Rugby World Cup 2023 warm-up matches in August – in Bucharest, Lisbon and Twickenham – but first, she will travel to Cape Town this month to become the first female referee to officiate in the World Rugby U20 Championship.
And Davidson knows how important a staging post the returning tournament can be as she attempts to tick off one of the few remaining items on her rugby to-do list and earn selection for a men’s Rugby World Cup.
“The under-20s is a great opportunity to make that step into the next stage of World Rugby men's tests,” Davidson said.
“To be honest, I see this as maybe the first step on that journey [to a men’s Rugby World Cup]. What's probably most important now is that yes, I go down there but I put in performances that I'm proud of and it allows me to continue that journey.
“It's fine me being there but if I then go down and don't perform, then it's maybe a backward step. So, I just need to go down, stay focused and then hopefully the journey continues after the junior World Cup.”
Integral to that potential pathway will be the way in which she interacts with her colleagues on the match official team and the players, who may well become the stars of future Rugby World Cups.
Six of the 26 match officials selected for RWC 2023 – including Georgia’s Nika Amashukeli – refereed at the most recent U20 Championship, in Argentina in 2019, and Davidson believes the relationships she develops over the next month will be critical.
“Everyone knows that the most successful teams are those that are able to click when they're on the pitch,” she explained. “And for me, that's no different with match officials.
“If you've got a good working relationship and you're there to help one another, then for me, that's how we get the best outcomes on the field.”
Davidson is excited for what awaits in South Africa. Having been involved with the previous two editions of the men’s U20 Six Nations, she is expecting fast-paced matches and describes players at this level as “balls of energy”.
Following her appointment as an assistant referee for the Stormers’ URC semi-final defeat of Connacht in Cape Town last month, she is hopeful that fans will fill the stands again – just as they did when the tournament was last played in South Africa in 2012.
“South Africans love their rugby,” Davidson said. “We were just down for the URC semi-final and to get 47,000 in Cape Town was unbelievable and I’ve got no doubt they’ll turn out for the U20s as well.
“So, to get the experience in front of those crowds and to be in a country that just absolutely is so passionate about their rugby I think is great, it’s so exciting.”
“Can you believe this is happening?”
Davidson is growing accustomed to stepping out in front of large stadiums, but she admits to nerves in the week leading up to the RWC 2021 final, especially as news of the record attendance at Eden Park began to filter through.
“When you see all of the articles saying that it's a sell-out or they've released more tickets and they're opening another section of the stadium, I was like 'holy sh*t’,” Davidson said.
“I then turned my phone off and at that point I was like, ‘You've been chosen for a reason here, Hollie’ and I kept trying to just repeat that in my head to not get so focused on the scary points of the game, or the scary points of the environment anyway.
“Because I knew that, as a referee, you're going to go in and you're going to receive some heat, the crowd's going to get on top of you at certain points, so I'd already prepped in my head for that.
“And it was actually more about just going out and just trying to enjoy it, take it in, like that's never going to happen again.
“So, just enjoy all the moments and at one point I remember turning round and smiling to my AR, Aimee Barrett-Theron and she just smiled back like, ‘Can you believe this is happening?’ So yeah, very good memories.”
Davidson needed to make arguably the biggest decision of her career with less than 17 minutes on the clock at Eden Park.
But despite having 42,579 pairs of eyes on her in the stadium, and with millions more watching on from around the world, Davidson felt a sense of clarity as she sent England winger Lydia Thompson off for a dangerous tackle on Portia Woodman-Wickliffe.
“In that situation, because it was red, I just felt quite still actually, quite calm and in control because it wasn't a 50-50 decision,” she explained.
“It probably was very clear cut, which then makes it a little bit easier. Obviously not for the player, but a little bit of an easier decision.”
Following the match, which New Zealand won 34-31, Davidson celebrated with her partner and colleagues in the changing room, while RWC 2017 final referee Joy Neville gave a speech in her honour.
“Just passing on the baton,” Davidson said. “We became such a close-knit group of officials across that time in New Zealand that it was so nice to end it on a high.
“There was champagne, there were a few drinks flowing in the changing rooms after. And then I turned my phone on and my mum had gotten up at God-knows-what time in the morning and she was just so proud.”
Given how driven her daughter is to become the best referee that she possibly can be, it surely won’t be the last such text Davidson receives as she travels from Cape Town to Twickenham and beyond.
“I've got people around me and people in positions that want to see change and want to push match officiating on,” she added.
“That keeps me motivated as well because it's like a whole collective drive forward for change, which I think keeps me on my toes, which is great.”