Two former Ulster rugby stars are making history after they swapped playing for officiating.
Former City of Derry players Glenda Mellon and Grainne Crabtree are two of only three female rugby referees in the province.
After being forced to stop playing, Glenda said both ladies were keen to remain involved in the game and became interested in the role.
“We played for 10 years and then both retired through injury so we needed a new challenge. It’s something we pushed ourselves to do.”
The process of becoming a registered official has been intense, and it shows no sign of letting up.
“You go on the trial members training course and after that you can be put into games where you’re watching a referee, touch-judging, or even sharing a game. It’s a way of breaking you into it.
“You do some more workshop training before you’re given some games to referee yourself. The games are assessed and scored, and once you get two games at the score that they want then they move you into full membership, which we now have.
“We’re both in 2C which means that we can do up to Junior 4,5 and 6. We’ll be assessed again to move up another league which happens regularly.”
As well as becoming full members, the ladies have been writing more history after being included in a prestigious training course.
“They’ve put both of us onto the development programme which about 15 people - men and women - across all Ulster leagues, have qualified for. The people who go into that are people who they see are going to make it to All-Ireland League or potentially higher. It’s the first time females in Ulster have got this far.”
With Grainne’s two years of experience, and Glenda completing her first year, the ladies have overcome many difficulties to achieve their success.
Both women referee at least one men’s game each week, and Grainne revealed that often people are shocked by their role.
“When you talk to people they assume that you referee ladies’ games. When you get out of the car and go into the clubhouse, the looks that you get can be strange. People still can’t believe that you’re refereeing.”
Over recent years there has been controversy over the introduction of female referees in football, basketball and America’s NFL. However, with rugby renowned for the respect between players and officials, Glenda said that on the field they have found it to be no different for them.
“Both of us have actually had really good feedback from the teams. Almost every game after a match they’ll say that you’ve done well. Some captains have said that it’s the quietest their team has been. They almost seem to behave themselves more with a female ref.”
Focusing on the role itself, Grainne pointed out the increased awareness needed in progressing from a playing role to one of officiating.
“You’ve got so many things to keep up on. Whenever you’re a player, you’re in the ruck, but as a referee you’re in the ruck and you also have to look everywhere. It’s hard to get used to not just being focused on doing one thing. You have to take the whole pitch in.”
Glenda added that fitness was also a major factor in succeeding in an officiating role.
“You have to be fit. You can’t come into it and think you’ll be fine. If you want to go higher with it, you have to put the effort in.”
With the Women’s World Cup coming to Ireland in 2017, both women would love to be there, however, Grainne explained that it was a tough target.
“Unfortunately, it’s very close for us. You have to referee AIL which is a few steps ahead of where we are. You then have to be selected to referee at the Six Nations, which will be in a year and a half.”
Agreeing with her colleague, Glenda said they want to set achievable targets for themselves.
“Realistically, we both want to be in a position where we’re in a paid role as a contracted referee. It’s just the time frame on it and making sure we stay injury-free. At the same time, you’re not in it for the money. You’re in it for the love of the game and to break boundaries.”
With both ladies having participated in a variety of sports, Grainne insisted they haven’t lost that competitive nature.
“We’ve played a lot of different sports through the years. You still want to be involved in some way, and coaching just doesn’t appeal as much. It’s not personally competitive because you’re depending on other people whereas refereeing is just your own performance.”
Looking forward, Glenda explained that their aim was to continue to progress, and to change people’s opinions.
“Both of us are so competitive that we want to become as good as possible. We are now getting the support of the society, and we are now starting to get the support of clubs as well. For every club that we referee at, it’s another one on board.
“I would say to other females, go for it. It’s hard work but if you are committed, it is worthwhile.”