Feature: Scrum on down

Nikki O'Donnell, rugby referee.
Nikki O'Donnell, rugby referee.
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WHEN I blow the whistle I expect to be treated exactly the same as any other referee – male or female”

Anyone looking for a role model in sport could do a lot worse than Nikki O’Donnell.

The 26-year-old takes no flack and has won the respect of rugby players at all levels over the past two years to achieve what only a handful have managed.

Her CV is long and impressive – aged 14 she was playing senior women’s football for Newcastle United WFC, in her teens she had England under16s trials and at university she turned her hand to rugby and clocked up seasons with Hartlepool RFC, NE Regional, Blaydon and Darlington Mowden Park Shark.

She then did a stint representing the RAF in the 2010 Inter-services against the Army and represented the Combined Services: before beginning to referee through Durham Referee Society and being accepted onto the north federation development squad and then the RFU womens referee development squad a year later.

This year alone she has been fifth official at the England Vs Wales game for women and refereed at the England Vs France under 20s Women’s game and in June she will travel to Belgium to referee at the Europe Women’s Rugby Sevens.

Phew! And if you’re still following, she’s now a Level 7 RFU referee for Durham and Northumberland One league games and has also been disability development officer for Durham Football Association and Hartlepool United FC.

Nikki said: “The main thing I enjoy is the banter, building a rapport with the players and the surprised look on their faces when it’s a female reffing their game.

“There are some practical differences like them organising a separate shower for me but I’ve never experienced sexism.

“There’s no difference between reffing a men’s game or a women’s game.

“You set a standard from the start of the game. Players and spectators tend to get wrapped up in a game but if they’re out of order they generally come and apologise when it’s finished. I understand because I know I get carried away when I watch Newcastle play.”

Nikki was encouraged to play rugby while studying Sport Science at Teesside University.

She said: “During the Rugby World Cup when England won, a couple of the rugby girls got me and some of the football girls to have a go at rugby. It was very amusing so I gave it a go and then went back to football.

“I had a car accident which damaged my back so I had some time off from football and then when I got better I decided to try rugby again for a while.

“I joined the Darlington Mowden Park Sharks in 2009 and then realised I needed to understand the game more so I did a refereeing course through Durham referee society so I could learn the laws of the game.

“For part of the course I had to referee three games and do some self analysis and be observed and I really enjoyed it so I decided to continue.”

Nikki says she does notice a difference between her two favourite sports. She said: “I’ve been involved in both football and rugby but I prefer to referee for rugby.

“It comes down to the old cliché, ‘rugby is a thug’s game played by gentlemen and football is a gentleman’s game played by thugs.

“The FA are working hard to stamp the cliché out of the game by running their Respect programme and hopefully the 2012 Olympics will be a good opportunity to improve things.

“I don’t know where the disrespect comes from in football but maybe some young players learn from those on the telly, and at times I think professional players forget they are role models and youngsters copy what they do, not just bits of skill but also behaviour.

“The best refs in the world are the ones who don’t take flack. There have been attempts in football to stop backchat but it’s not followed through. I think if they were tougher they’d get a lot of flack at first but then things would improve.

“In rugby there’s a constant push to eliminate problem areas.

“They work from the top and it filters through all levels of the game. Dissent and foul play are just not accepted. An example of this is the crackdown on tip tackles at the moment.

“Players complained at first but now it’s accepted.

“There’s a big emphasis on the captain’s discipline too. If they won’t deal with an issue then the ref will step in. Captains are expected to bring out a good team.”

Now Nikki is facing her next challenge – life in the Army with the Queen Alexandra Royal Army Nursing Corps. She said: “I’d been in the RAF Reserves for three years and I applied to be in the Air Force. I wasn’t successful but realised I could do the same job in the army and they accepted me.

“It’s going to be a real challenge and a totally new career after football.

“I’ll be working in military defence hospital units which are based within NHS hospitals. Then there’s the chance of being deployed around the world.

“The army is really supportive in regards to sport so after basic training I’ll keep playing and reffing.”

For the future Nikki is setting her sights high.

She said: “It’s a long shot but as a ref I’m looking at the Womens World Cup in France 2014 to try to be involved and possibly the Sevens at the 2016 Olympics in Rio. I’m not saying I’ll get there because they’re big targets but it’s something to aspire to.”

And she thinks it’s just a matter of time before more women join her on the pitch.

She said: “It is starting to change now. There are more events and massive improvements to women’s rugby. A lot of women like me are taking it up later in life.

“It’s just a question of promoting it more and making people more aware of the different pathways and how they can involved. Not everyone wants to go and ref at an international game but there’s always a junior club to go and help with. Clubs have ref co-ordinators you can contact and courses you can train on. Trainee refs are always needed from tiny tots games to seniors.

“The game can’t go ahead without a ref and players at all levels respect that.

“Then there’s the friends side of things – you get to know the players, the parents, the coaches. Rugby is one of the most welcoming sports.”

-NIKKI began her rugby-refereeing career in 2010 through the Durham Referees Society. Chairman Malcolm Shorney said: “Nikki did the entry level course with us and since then she’s done incredibly well. “She’s refereed right across the board. Nikki has a good playing and sporting background but she’s also been very quick to learn. “Five years ago you’d watch the big games and see a man reffing a woman’s game but now the referees are women and that’s what we want. The RFU and the Durham Referees Society are doing as much as possible to encourage women to train as referees.” Nikki said: They’re fantastic, really supportive. We have monthly training meetings discussing the different aspects of the game and moving forward and there are some really experienced people like Alan Hughes to learn from. “I’m still relatively new to the game and it’s just a question of getting a fine handle on the laws. It’s the things that don’t happen very often where your knowledge comes into making a decision. You learn from other refs, observers, by watching games back afterwards - you’re continuously learning.”