Joy Neville admits she will not be able to “properly comprehend” her achievements in rugby until she has hung up her whistle.
When that time comes, the player-turned-match official will have quite a career to look back on.
On Saturday, Neville will become the first woman to perform Television Match Official duties in a major men's international competition when Wales face Georgia in the Autumn Nations Cup.
It is the latest in a growing list of accomplishments. As a player, Neville won 70 caps for Ireland, captained her country and appeared at two Rugby World Cups.
As an official, she was the first woman to officiate a professional European match, the second to referee a men’s international in the region, and has since taken charge of fixtures in the European Challenge Cup and PRO14.
Neville has also refereed on the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series and took charge of the Rugby World Cup 2017 final between England and New Zealand, the same year she took home the World Rugby Referee Award.
“To be honest, it’s probably when I look back when I’m finished that I’ll probably properly comprehend and really understand my achievements,” she said.
“But, for now it’s just about going in there and doing a job, and doing it well. So, my priority now is to get as much practice as I possibly can so that I’m not remembered for the wrong reasons.
“The last thing we want is a try, not try situation where there is a clear foot in touch and it hasn’t been scrutinised or looked at. So, I just need to get the job done and do it right.”
Neville has developed a habit of doing exactly that, but had it not been for a couple of phone calls following her retirement from playing in 2013, she might not have picked up a whistle at all.
It had been her plan to walk away from rugby completely in order to spend time with her wife and family. However, former international referee David McHugh made it his mission to convince her otherwise.
Very excited about this new challenge 🙌 Always said I respected TMOs as it is an extremely difficult job (do I come in, don't I come in? or will I? Maybe not... 🤔😉🤣) So be kind peeps 🤣🤣🤣❤️ Congrats @Nigelrefowens, seriously unbelievable achievement 👊💪 https://t.co/GmxuBHr69V— Joy Neville (@JoyNevilleRef) October 3, 2020
McHugh’s persistence, coupled with the assertion of one figure she consulted that a woman would not referee a men’s All Ireland League (AIL) match in his lifetime, pushed Neville to give officiating a try.
Neville encountered sexism in those early matches. She recalls one occasion on which she was “met by the front-rows and one of them who kept laughing and sniggering”. But, alongside contemporaries such as Alhambra Nievas and Sara Cox she has helped to change perceptions.
“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’,” she told World Rugby in 2018.
“Thankfully, slowly but surely, the mindset of people is changing and that hasn’t happened to me in quite a few years now.
“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.”
Third Assistant Referee
Neville was handed her Autumn Nations Cup assignment on merit, having impressed in recent elite club rugby competitions.
Although she will watch Wales host Georgia via a TV screen as opposed to from the touchline, she believes the TMO plays a pivotal role in the match officials team and should be seen as an additional Assistant Referee (AR).
“The role of the TMO is so important. In an essence, it’s a third AR,” Neville explained.
“We stick to the same philosophy of ‘stick to the clear and obvious’, and having a TMO there when you come across some situations that are really difficult to spot as a team of three on-field officials.
“So, it’s extremely important and it’s important in the game and I suppose it provides, in a way, when we use it in the adequate way, it provides entertainment for the spectators and the fans as well.”