Alhambra Nievas has got used to leading the way. During an impressive, recently concluded refereeing career the Spaniard ticked off an enviable list of firsts.
No woman had officiated a men's match involving top 20 ranked nations when Nievas ran the line during Tonga’s defeat of USA in San Sebastian in November 2016. Eleven months later she took charge of the Rugby Europe Conference 2 North encounter between Finland and Norway, another first in the region.
Nievas also found the time between February 2014 and November 2017 to referee 100 HSBC World Rugby Women's Sevens Series matches. No female official had done that before, either.
The former Spain international also refereed the gold medal match between Australia and New Zealand at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, an achievement that saw her receive the World Rugby Referee Award alongside South African Rasta Rasivhenge.
The 35-year-old experienced nerves ahead of the opening match in Rio, it had been a lifelong dream to participate in an Olympic Games, but otherwise stage fright is an unfamiliar feeling.
“It (pressure) was what happened off the field,” she explained. “A lot of tension, a lot of media requests, a lot of good things around, but in the moment I go into the pitch I referee another game of rugby so, I try to keep my same routine, to get away from all the tension, all the pressure because of being the first one.”
It is an attitude that should serve Nievas well as she begins her new role as World Rugby's Referee Development Manager.
Having hung up her whistle this year, the Spaniard believes her recent experience and achievements can help push forward World Rugby’s development plan for women’s rugby, and encourage more girls to take up refereeing.
“I’m really fresh,” Nievas says as she ponders what she will bring to her new job. “I’ve just finished my refereeing career and I know what referees need or what you need to focus on. So, I can bring some fresh experience to the management team.
“World Rugby has a very ambitious plan for the women’s game and we want more women involved in every aspect. More coaches, better players and more and better referees in the women’s game.
“I think I can help with that, especially (because) I came from a tier two country. This is not an excuse, if you want to do it, you can do it.”
World Rugby aims to make women’s rugby a global leader in sport by 2025, giving females involved with the game equity whether they are players, coaches or administrators.
"Nothing is impossible. I couldn’t imagine 10 years ago or five years ago that I would be here starting this new role. So, anything you want to do just be prepared and work hard for that."
It is a goal that chimes with Nievas’ own ambitions for the refereeing profession.
“I would love to see a strong female panel of referees work in both 15s and sevens, and to have more and more women in rugby in the refereeing aspect – around the world, not only in the international stage,” she explained. “Just to embrace and create opportunities for them.”
So, can Nievas envisage a time when all-female teams of officials are commonplace in all forms of the game?
Nothing is impossible
“It would be a good goal. If we achieved this working together it would be amazing.”
There can be few better role models for those looking to get into officiating than Nievas. So, what advice would she give to those considering picking up the whistle?
“My advice would be that it’s nothing that you can’t do if you really want to do it,” she insisted. “Just try to be around good people, work hard and take the opportunities when the opportunities come.
“So, it’s just nothing is impossible. I couldn’t imagine 10 years ago or five years ago that I would be here starting this new role. So, anything you want to do just be prepared and work hard for that.”
Indeed, Nievas admits that not everyone was convinced by her new passion when she was introduced to rugby at the University of Malaga in 2002.
Respect as a referee
“At the beginning I had to think a little bit because my family didn’t understand in the beginning, it was tough for them,” she explained. “But rugby became, not only a sport, it was more like a lifestyle.
“You see things differently, you start playing rugby and it’s part of your life. So, it becomes more and more important, and now I just can’t imagine a life without rugby.”
Having started refereeing while still a player, Nievas took the decision to concentrate on life in the middle just six years ago. One thing she wasn’t the first woman to do was take charge of a men’s match in Spain, and she admits having female referees Itziar Diaz and Paloma Loza to look up to aided her development.
“In my situation I don’t feel it was different being a female referee because of all the experience before me,” she says, reflecting on her early career. “So, I didn’t find it difficult to referee men’s games.
“In Spain most of my refereeing was male games and I felt respect as a referee. Not being looked at as a female referee.
“Now women are more and more interested in refereeing, and when we run courses there are a lot of women interested to do it.
“And now we have more women going to the national panel, and it’s a good thing that when people have an example near they realise ‘yeah, why not?’ and they make the decision to try.”
So, as she begins her new life as a development manager, what will Nievas be looking for in those tempted to follow in her footsteps?
“I think the first thing is a love of the game,” Nievas says when weighing up what makes a good referee. “Keep the passion for the game, work with the players and of course be calm on the field.
“And just try to learn from the mistakes and then you can step and move forward from them.”
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