Rebecca Mahoney did not envision becoming a trailblazer when she first swapped her playing kit for a referee’s uniform in 2015

A two-time Rugby World Cup winner who ended her test career with 16 Black Ferns caps, Mahoney wanted to become the best official that she could be but there was little talk of taking charge of men’s matches.

That changed around two years ago when New Zealand Rugby (NZR), which appointed its first Women’s Referee Development Manager last month, instigated a bolder approach to the selection and training of its officials, challenging them while creating greater opportunities.

Mahoney has been a beneficiary of that approach. Having proven herself capable of handling Heartland Championship and Ranfurly Shield matches she became the first woman to referee in New Zealand’s premier domestic rugby competition, the Mitre 10 Cup, in September.

“I really enjoyed it,” Mahoney told World Rugby.

“It was always going to be a step up I guess and that was always going to be the challenge.

“It didn’t give me anything other than a challenge, but I really enjoyed it and enjoyed the pace of the game, the skill level of the players.

“I guess for me it was never a goal that I had from the start, I wasn’t sure if it really was an achievable goal so it was really cool to achieve it.”

Feet on the ground

Mahoney’s ultimate ambition remains earning selection for Rugby World Cup 2021, which will be hosted in New Zealand, and as such last month’s match was just the latest step on that journey.

Her previous experience, both as a player and referee, coupled with a busy work life spent on her farm meant that she did not suffer from nerves ahead of Hawke’s Bay’s 41-23 defeat of Southland.

The one worry the 36-year-old did have prior to kick-off at McLean Park was that she would get in the way of a bullocking ball carrier who had taken an unpredictable line.

“I’ve done a bit of Super Rugby development and under-20s games and I think pace-wise, it’s on par with those games,” Mahoney said.

“Every game is going to throw a different challenge at you, so I guess we all just prepare our games and watch the teams that we’re reffing and for me make sure I know their escape plans from inside the 22 so I don’t get in the way!

“That was definitely one of my key focus areas leading into the game, make sure I don’t get flattened by someone who’s taken a different running line than I thought they were going to do.

“If we can keep both feet on the ground we’ve got a good outcome and then we worry about the other stuff after that.

Changing perceptions

“So, both feet stayed on the ground for 80 minutes so I’m taking that as a good outcome.”

NZR National Referee Manager Bryce Lawrence admits that four years ago he would have had reservations about whether a female referee could cope with the demands of a Mitre 10 Cup match.

Mahoney’s own injury history exacerbated those concerns, but he is happy to have been proven wrong, with the 36-year-old rising to every challenge asked of her.

“The only real big step from a referee selection point of view was that it had never been done before,” Lawrence told World Rugby.

“But we’ve deliberately taken a view over the last two years that we need to be bold and we need to be brave, and we need to create more opportunities.

“With that as our underlying philosophy it wasn’t a big step to give her the game at all.”

Lawrence added: “If we want Bex to be refereeing the best women’s test matches in the world we need to show World Rugby that we believe in her as well.”

Mastering a work-life balance

Mahoney says that the biggest challenge she currently faces is “getting the balance right” between family time, her work on the farm and travel commitments for refereeing.

The geography of New Zealand, and the remote location of her farm, dictates that during the rugby season she spends most weekends away from home and her two young children.

But Mahoney does think there is a benefit to performing two such distinct jobs.

“I do believe that having a break away from the farm and doing my rugby gives me the ability to reflect back on our business and how that functions, and the positives and negatives,” she said.

“And the same vice versa. Being away from rugby, working on the farm ‘OK, what was I doing last Saturday?’

“The ability to get away but also reflect on the two different businesses, or the two different parts of my life.”

Mahoney will hope that the sacrifices she is currently making in terms of time with Amber, 11, and Harper, six, pays dividends when New Zealand 2021 rolls around.

“I continually sort of say to myself, if I’m physically fit and I’m refereeing well then I just want to be prepared for any phone call that comes. Ready to do any game that I’m asked to do,” she said.

Inspiring a new generation

“I think by being physically in a good state and mentally prepared, it just opens the doors up to anything that arrives.

“But for me the women’s World Cup would be amazing because I’ve played in a couple of them and it’s in New Zealand, so that’s a massive goal of mine.”

Both Mahoney and Lawrence are hopeful that her achievements with the whistle can inspire more women and young girls to take up officiating. And Mahoney has some advice for aspiring female referees.

“Just be open minded. Just start with one conversation,” she said.

“That was the biggest challenge for me, I came into the game when there weren’t many female referees and it probably wasn’t a normal transition for a player to go in to.

“But I guess the most important thing that my mentor [Harry Quinn] has told me is ‘Look at everybody, take the information in and then afterwards process it and take the little bit that will work for you as an individual’.

“You do a lot of listening as a referee so you want to learn and you want to continually be the best, and you’ll never ever get the perfect game will you – you will always want something else or something more.”