Joy Neville is a referee in demand. The Irish official, who oversaw the Women’s Rugby World Cup 2017 final, should not be short of air miles following a busy few weeks that included assignments in France and the United States.

Neville was in the south of France on 12 October to referee Sale’s European Challenge Cup defeat of Perpignan at the Stade Aime Giral, before she jetted to Glendale for the opening round of the HSBC World Rugby Women’s Sevens Series the following weekend.

November will be no less hectic, as she runs the line in two Rugby World Cup 2019 Repechage matches in Marseille, either side of refereeing the second women's test between France and New Zealand in Grenoble on 17 November.

However, was it not for the persistence of former international referee David McHugh – and the reticence of a senior official in her homeland – Neville would never have picked up a whistle.

“I did not want to referee, I never contemplated refereeing. I was plagued by David McHugh,” the former Ireland captain said. “He rang me and he plagued me. I said ‘look, I’ve committed 11 years of my life to playing rugby and my priorities (have) changed’.

“I met my now-wife and I wanted to be there for my family because they were always there for me in my moments, and he said ‘I’ll give you eight months’. And he rang me to the day so I knew he meant business.”

Not in my lifetime

Had it not been for a subsequent phone call, Neville may well have remained resolute and walked away from the game following a playing career that yielded 70 caps and two Women’s Rugby World Cups.

Wanting to know what would be possible should she take McHugh up on his offer, she phoned an unnamed figure she describes as “very high up in rugby circles”.

“He said ‘Joy, not in my lifetime do I see a female refereeing in the All Ireland League (AIL), the men’s league’,” Neville recalled. “So, I put the phone down and I picked it up to call David McHugh and said ‘I’m in’.”

Neville has since ticked off her first burning ambition, to referee an AIL match, and broken down barriers for female referees alongside contemporaries such as Alhambra Nievas and Sara Cox.

It hasn’t been a straightforward journey, however, and Neville admits she struggled with making mistakes early on in her refereeing career – especially when officiating games involving former team-mates.

Neville also encountered sexist attitudes as she was starting to learn her new trade. 

Changing mindset

“I remember I refereed a game in Donnybrook, an under-20s inter-provincial game. I walked into the changing rooms and I was met by the front-rows and one of them who kept laughing and sniggering,” Neville said.

“I never dealt with that person, and I never felt so bad walking out of that changing room and doing my pre-match warm-up, so annoyed and ashamed of how I was. I didn’t respect myself to deal with that there, in an appropriate way.

“I think the moral of the story is you learn from those experiences, and I learned from feeling so crappy that I said ‘I’ll never let that happen again’.”

Neville encountered a similar situation soon after, ahead of a British and Irish Cup game, but this time dealt with it quickly and earned the players’ respect. 

“Thankfully, slowly but surely, the mindset of people is changing and that hasn’t happened to me in quite a few years now,” she added.

“I think it’s because the likes of Sara, Hollie (Davidson), Alhambra, we’re out there now and I think we’re educating them that a female can referee just as well as a male, and it’s not about the gender it’s about the job and being prepared.”

Increased visibility

It is not only male opinions that Neville wants to change, and she believes the increased visibility of female referees will only encourage more young women to take up officiating.

“Hopefully younger girls can see the female role models, referees that are here refereeing (in Glendale) from all over the world, and hopefully they can see that anything is possible.”

That sentiment has certainly been a factor in Neville’s rapid rise through the ranks of officials, from Ireland to the international stage and accolades such as the World Rugby Referee Award in 2017.

“Everyone at some point of their lives are told they can’t do something, it’s whether you believe in someone else’s opinion or you believe in yourself and you drive on,” Neville explained.

Neville has definitely done the latter, but as she looks back at what she has accomplished in the last four years she struggles to pick out her one, overriding, biggest achievement.

Refereeing her first AIL match was what she had set out to do, and she remains proud that she was able to prove that person wrong. But since then, she has continued to grow – in confidence and status – from the PRO14, to the Challenge Cup to the Women’s Rugby World Cup final in Belfast and her first men's international match in the Rugby Europe International Championship last October.

Embrace mistakes to learn

“I think it’ll be when I stop, when I hang up my boots that I’ll look back and go ‘Wow!’,” Neville said. “Even just refereeing in Perpignan with I don’t know how many thousand spectators – screaming spectators – and it was just an amazing experience.

“If you’d asked me when I first started, even refereeing in the British and Irish Cup, was that a possibility and I would have said ‘no’.

“I think the more you transition, the more you realise what opportunities are out there once you prepare and you put in the hard work and have the right attitude.”

So, what advice would Neville give any young girls convinced to give refereeing a go having seen her in action in Perpignan, Colorado or Marseille?

“I would say embrace mistakes, learn from your mistakes and understand the why,” she said. “If you look at something that didn’t go right, understanding why it didn’t go right will minimise the same thing happening again.

“Work as hard as you can to be as prepared as possible because with preparation comes self-belief and confidence, and how you relay yourself through body language and on the pitch and that’s a massive element of refereeing.

“Lastly, just enjoy it because if you’re not enjoying it what’s the point in doing it?”