Sara Cox has made a career of smashing through rugby’s glass ceilings, but even she was caught off guard by the magnitude of the reaction to her latest historic achievement.
In the days since Cox ran out at the Twickenham Stoop to become the first woman to referee an English Premiership match her phone has barely stopped buzzing.
I’m not sure it is possible to thank everyone enough for their support and well wishes over this past week 🤍. It has been an amazing experience and one I will never forget. #thankyou #support #amazingpeople #thisgirlcan @ppauk pic.twitter.com/m7BboWeQTz— Sara Cox - Referee (@SaraCoxRef) September 29, 2021
Messages of support arrived too via text, email and social media from parents whose children have been inspired by Cox and other female match officials such as Joy Neville and Hollie Davidson.
“The reaction from people wanting to send support messages and things like that has been fantastic.
“I didn’t expect it to be honest, and I don’t think I was quite prepared for how much reaction there was going to be — and quite how much positive reaction there was going to be as well,” Cox told World Rugby.
“It’s come across emails, text messages, social media messages, people’s engagement on my social media as well. People just wanted to send their congratulations, their support, their well-wishes and just people, honestly engaging that I never thought would, and how they would.
“So, it’s just getting that wider and wider reach each time, which I think is brilliant.”
Taking everything in
Cox, who in 2016 became England’s first professional female referee, had been advised by her colleagues at the Rugby Football Union to take a moment to acknowledge her achievement as she led out Harlequins and Worcester Warriors last weekend.
“We've obviously been in the situation that we have globally [and you realise] that a lot of this can be taken away from you very, very quickly and for whatever reason,” Cox said.
“So, if you don't take these moments and absorb as much as you can, these moments might pass you by and they never come around again.
“And, a lot of the advice that I got from Wayne Barnes, Luke Pearce, Tom Foley, the guys that I work with all the time, they all turned around to me and said there's one piece of advice that I could give you, is stand in the middle and absorb what's going on and take a moment for yourself to absorb that as well, because you don't get that again.
“Once you've done your first one, you know what to expect after that, so I think I'd be a fool if I hadn't done that.
“It was something that, again, I think my family wanted to engage with as well and knew that they wanted to be a part of that moment.
“So, I think we all just kind of stood there and took it all in and made sure that we smiled about it as well.”
Cox was able to celebrate with her family after the match, and says it was an especially proud moment for her mum, who has assisted her rise through the ranks but was unable to attend her Premiership debut as an assistant referee.
Last Saturday, Cox was also grateful for the support of her assistant referees, Jack Makepeace and Rob Warburton, and TMO Stuart Terheege, who she says helped take the pressure off her in the moments leading up to kick-off.
Although the 31-year-old insists she was just focused on executing her game plan and being a “cog in a big wheel” her performance during the match has been widely praised.
Harlequins scrum-half Danny Care was one of several players to give positive feedback during the 80 minutes, and on the BBC Radio 5Live Rugby Union Weekly podcast he suggested “the more games that she does, the better the Premiership’s going to be”.
“It is amazing to have that from someone like Danny Care, but at the end of the day, I've still got to go out there and make sure I do that job, so the next time that he sees me I have improved on the things that I need to improve on,” Cox said.
“Because it's no good that we do that first game and then I end up replicating something that wasn't quite right or it wasn't something that should have happened.
“So, I think it is great and I think it's lovely to take that on board, but at the same time, I've got to make sure that I know and I'm clear in my head how I need to get better as a referee so that those types of things can come true.”
Maintaining the momentum
That journey will continue on Sunday, when Cox takes charge of the English Championship match between Cornish Pirates and Ealing Trailfinders.
She will hope to implement the lessons learnt at the Stoop when she runs out at Mennaye Field, and from a rugby perspective she is determined not to look too much further ahead.
In July, Cox brought an end to her career as an international sevens referee when she took charge of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games women’s gold medal match between New Zealand and France.
Next year could be a busy one with Rugby World Cup 2021 being played in New Zealand, but with appointments out of her control, Cox is focused solely on improving performance rather than setting new goals.
“Ultimately we go through a selection process just like a player would and so I've got to leave that selection process up to the people that are doing it,” she said.
“What I definitely have to do is make sure that I prepare myself in the best possible way to put myself forward and say, ‘OK, I could do that game if you wanted to select me’.
“There's no good targeting something that might not even be realistic to target.”
Cox added: “I'd love to be a part of [RWC 2021], but again, that's not up to me, so it's about that selection process.
“But again, I want to just keep building that experience, building that repertoire so that I'm in that position for them to say yes or no. And, I want to be a better referee and I want to continue being a better referee.
“So, what happens in between time from now until that point where they give us that selection, I want to keep improving and I want to keep going on that journey and keeping that momentum.”