It is not only players and coaches whose minds, and priorities, are beginning to drift towards Rugby World Cup 2021.

Referee Amber McLachlan, who took charge of England’s 66-7 defeat of Wales earlier this month and was due to referee France v Ireland before it was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, harbours her own hopes of earning a place in New Zealand, on the panel of match officials.

That match at the Twickenham Stoop, played in front of a record crowd for a ticketed women’s match outside of a Rugby World Cup, was McLachlan’s first in the Women’s Six Nations and marked the latest achievement in a “whirlwind” year for the Melbourne-based referee.

Last May, McLachlan travelled to Stellenbosch, South Africa, to take part in the first women’s High Performance Academy. 

Later that month she made her test debut when Hong Kong played Samoa in Fiji, and she would be in the middle for South Africa v Scotland and USA v Canada before 2019 was out.

McLachlan is still learning, the match at The Stoop was only her second alongside a TMO, but following more than seven years of hard graft, the New Zealand-born referee is determined not to let the opportunity to officiate at a Rugby World Cup pass her by.

“I guess the whole kind of run up, and everything in it, has been to get to a [Rugby] World Cup,” she told World Rugby. 

“The women’s World Cup in New Zealand next year is now definitely an aim and by the sounds of it, a realistic aim for me.”

Rugby World Cup homecoming

Selection for New Zealand 2021 would also represent something of a homecoming for the Rugby Australia referee.

McLachlan was born in Canterbury and emigrated from Lauriston to rural New South Wales aged eight, when her father was offered a sheep farm in the small town of Grong Grong.

Her first memories of watching rugby date from the period immediately following her family’s move across the Tasman Sea as they stayed up late watching the exploits of the All Blacks at Rugby World Cup 1995 from a sofa bed.

The final in South Africa would, of course, end in disappointment for New Zealand but two years later McLachlan and her family were among the 90,119 spectators at the Melbourne Cricket Ground who watched Carlos Spencer inspire the All Blacks to a 33-18 Bledisloe Cup win over Australia.

“Mum had got tickets for us,” she remembered. 

“We were only able to get standing tickets but there was a little screen there that you could see and dad was almost half holding me up to look through and see that.”

McLachlan was hooked, and once home cut pictures out of the match-day programme to decorate her school folder with players from both teams.

She had played hockey in New Zealand, while netball was offered at school in Australia but rugby was always the sport that McLachlan was most drawn to.

Playing wasn’t a possibility until she was 15 and once the chance to take the field arrived, she and her classmates grasped it with both hands.

“I was never really interested in netball,” McLachlan admitted. 

“With a whole heap of other girls in my year, we were like, ‘none of us actually like netball’, we all just wanted to play rugby. 

“So, once we got to 15, we were like, yep, we’re all in, which was good.”

Giving refereeing a go

A tour to England followed a year later, and when McLachlan moved to Melbourne for university, the first thing she looked for was a rugby club.

She was soon playing for Power House RUFC and, in the state championship, for Victoria and it was at the club that she would also meet her future husband, Shannon.

It was following an ACL injury that McLachlan, alongside Shannon, first dipped her toe into the waters of refereeing. Initially it was just something to do to pass the time on the sidelines.

“I was still quite involved with the club and they said, ‘oh, we’re having to put people through the referee course’. And I was like, oh, I’ll just do it then,” she explained. 

“I had no intention of actually refereeing. I was like ‘I’ve got an ACL injury here, I’m out for a year, I can’t run or anything like that’. 

“No intention of refereeing at all but then I was like oh, hold on, I can referee to ease my way back into playing. I can run around without the contact. 

“So I did a bit of that and [thought] oh, stick at it, ref in the morning, play in the afternoon, keep going, and after a while, they’re like, 'stop playing, stop playing, stop playing’. 

“I ignored them for a couple of years, I had no idea, and then they said ‘Oh, we can send you here’. I just didn’t realise the opportunities for referees.”

Spurring each other on

The lightbulb moment came in her final season of playing. McLachlan had the option to pay around AUS$1,000 to play for Victoria at the state championships or receive expenses to attend the tournament as an assistant referee.

Perhaps unsurprisingly she chose the latter, and didn’t look back. The 33-year-old admits it has been a tough slog, particularly between 2014-16, but her achievements – and a healthy rivalry with Shannon – have kept her going.

In 2018, just a few weeks after the couple had got married and the first Saturday following their return from honeymoon, the newlyweds were part of an officiating team at a National Rugby Championship match in Melbourne.

On a subsequent occasion Shannon operated as his wife’s assistant referee. “I told him to calm down and then probably the other guy said something,” Amber recalled. 

“[Shannon] said, ‘Well, you didn’t tell him to calm down’. And I was like, let’s just keep the communication calm, clear, everything. We don’t need to get too hyper here!”

Having worked their way through the ranks together, the pair spur each other on and Shannon travelled to England with Amber, her sister and mother. In London he acted both as a training partner and tour guide as the group walked up to 20km a day taking in the sights.

“It’s good to have somebody to bounce off just views and thoughts,” she explained. 

“We have a similar understanding, we might have a few disagreements as well but we try not to focus too much on it, and it’s great to have him here. 

“He’s pushing me and it’s really good, training or whatever. It makes it easier to get up and go to the gym early in the morning or go for a run or make yourself push yourself harder.”