Aimee Barrett-Theron is leaving nothing to chance as she bids to keep her name in the frame for a place on the match officials panel at Rugby World Cup 2021.
Barrett-Theron admits that her current schedule might look a “little bit intense” to the average person as she juggles life as an international referee with running her own biokinetics practice.
She travelled from South Africa to Europe in February to take charge of two Women’s Six Nations matches, including England’s win over France at a packed Stade du Hameau in Pau.
“I definitely had moments where I just paused and looked up at the crowd and I was like, ‘wow!’” Barrett-Theron admitted to World Rugby.
“Fifteen thousand-odd people at a women’s game and just fully behind their team, it’s amazing.
“It makes me excited for women’s rugby in general and I hope that some other countries can learn from the support in France and it can be as big as that.”
Barrett-Theron’s second 2020 Six Nations assignment was no less eventful, as she came close to calling off Ireland’s victory against Wales in Dublin.
Downpour in Dublin
With around 50 minutes on the clock, and the hosts leading 24-12, driving rain descended on Energia Park that made conditions for players, officials and supporters extremely uncomfortable.
“It was just a credit to the players who stood out there and took it. That’s probably the coldest I’ve ever been in a game,” the South African official said.
“Obviously player safety is really important so I was pretty close to saying ‘Listen, it’s actually better for the players [to go off]’ but kind of knowing that [the rain] could go.
“It dropped off a little bit and then I thought, listen, I’m actually not going to take these players off the field to then bring them back on the field.”
Barrett-Theron’s commitments have not eased now she is back in warmer climes. Just eight days after the Dublin downpour, she took charge of a Varsity Cup match in Pretoria.
The 32-year-old former South Africa international, who officiated at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games and at RWC 2017, is hopeful of refereeing in the Currie Cup Premier Division and running the line during Super Rugby this season.
Big year ahead
“I think 2020 is a big year for me to really cement my place in the women’s World Rugby squad and to really achieve and learn as much as I can in all the women’s tests and just push as far as I can to set myself up well for Rugby World Cup 2021 should I be a part of it,” Barrett-Theron explained.
“We’d like to really push into the men’s international competitions and Super Rugby, the Six Nations, the PRO14.
“Someone like Joy Neville’s already doing that, and she’s doing us proud. Sara Cox over in the Premiership and there’s a couple of them really pushing the boundaries, and I think we need to keep doing it for the next generation to see like, wow, it is possible.
“So, I think striving for the highest competition that we can in the men’s and the women’s games but then doing it on merit as much as we can.
“Obviously, there’s a big push in the women’s game and to get women involved in rugby but it’s really important for us to earn our way there and I think if you were to ask any of us that would be one of the main priorities.”
Barrett-Theron’s journey to international rugby began at the age of 13, when she chose to attend Northlands Girls’ High School in Durban due to its athletic reputation.
It was there that she was introduced to touch rugby and after graduating high school, she progressed to sevens and 15s, earning international recognition in both aged just 20.
Final day showing off Cape Town to these champs who reffed the first ever women’s tournament at the Cape Town 7’s👏🏻 @asics_za @zaanbtheron @aeperrett89 @JZussman @lauren_jenner @clare.daniels98 pic.twitter.com/yh8SZEOvGy— Aimee Barrett-Theron (@AimeeBarrett44) December 16, 2019
With hindsight it seems natural that Barrett-Theron would ultimately pick up the whistle seeing as she refereed both touch and hockey while playing at school.
But it was the support of two South African referees, Rasta Rasivhenge and Cwengile Jadezweni, that convinced her to take the step into officiating.
Jadezweni had attended Stellenbosch University alongside Barrett-Theron, while Rasivhenge approached her during the Dubai Sevens at a time when she was considering her future.
“He came up to me and he knew who I was, and he just said, ‘Hey, when are you going to pick up the whistle?’” Barrett-Theron remembered. “‘I think you’d be a great referee.’”
Having been part of the Springbok Women set-up for four years, Barrett-Theron felt she had achieved everything she wanted to as a player.
“I just got to the stage within myself and I thought, I think it’s time for me to move on,” she said.
“But being so passionate about rugby I couldn’t move very far and I thought, listen, I’m going to try and take up the whistle.
“I still get to be on the field, you get the best seat in the house as far as being close to the action, there’s still that physical challenge, it’s a mental, emotional challenge and it was.
“When I picked up the whistle I certainly regretted any chirp I made towards a referee in my playing years because it’s one of the hardest things I’ve done in my entire life. But also one of the most rewarding.”
Barrett-Theron’s decision to pick up the whistle has been more than vindicated.