Having never played the game, Laureana Pappaterra’s (second from left in the main photo) career is a compendium of highlights, mostly as a referee, opening doors for many other women to follow suit.
As a PE student in Mar del Plata, the Argentine seaside city where she was raised, she knew little to nothing about the game that would shape the second half of her life.
In a big decision by the Biguá Rugby Club, she was invited to help with their children's team twenty-one years ago. “It was the first time a woman got involved with rugby on the field in my city,” she explains, in conversation with World Rugby.
Soon, she was asked to be a trainer for the club’s U19 team. Despite being a sponge and learning as much as she could, her first day was somewhat challenging.
“The coach, Marcos Brown, had seen me do some good work with the children and asked me to join him with the U19s. The first day, a few players, now close friends, turned around and left.”
Constantly scrutinised, she became a touch judge and officiated whenever she could.
As luck would have it, the first time she guarded the touch-line, the referee was Martín Uribarri, a much-loved figure in the rugby playing circles, who coached referees in Mar del Plata.
“Seeing that I was always on the hunt for more information, he invited me to some Monday meetings at the local refereeing society.”
After a year of listening and taking notes, Laureana started refereeing youth matches in 2001.
In January 2002, she left the sun-kissed beaches of the Atlantic Ocean to enjoy an age-grade sevens tournament. Shortly after that, she was told she would be refereeing.
“I was wearing sandals. The local referees had it all planned and had a bag of gear for me,” she smiles, recalling her first big game. “I had to borrow boots from an U14s player!”
When the season eventually began, she started refereeing U15s. That wasn't without challenges either.
“In an U15 game, one of the coaches was constantly and loudly complaining about my decisions. I had to ask the team’s captain to tell him to leave. He was eventually suspended for two months by the local union and one year by his club.”
This kind of support was crucial for Laureana during her early days.
“Two years later, I bumped into him and he apologised. I told him he needed to do it in public; a couple of weeks later, in an after-match function he did so. We have since become close and always in touch.”
On the radar
By 2003, she appeared on the Unión Argentina de Rugby’s radar. Then referee coach Osvaldo Ciarrochi told her: “If you really like this, if you know the rules and if you are sure you will enjoy refereeing, you’ll hear from me.”
True to his word, he took her to Buenos Aires, a 400-kilometre drive north from Mar del Plata for a women’s tournament in 2004, and soon she was on her first ever flight to Barquisimeto, Venezuela, for the first ever South American sevens tournament.
“It was a huge experience; the first time I got UAR gear, I was the only woman in the referee’s team and got to officiate the final, during which Brazil began their domination of women’s rugby in the region.”
Laureana had become a point of reference in a women’s game that was very much in its infancy in Argentina, getting to travel every weekend during the sevens season.
“I loved it; I had earned my position with hard work, was respected and was even involved with provincial age-grade games for men.”
A serious accident growing up that could have left her quadriplegic meant she was unable to play the game. She still craved a local women’s scene, though.
In 2008, she formed the first women’s team, again with Biguá, although the memory is not sweet.
“Things didn't quite go as planned so after a while, I decided to stop coaching them and returned to refereeing.”
Around her tenth season with the game, she came across German-born Berndt Gabbei, a refereeing coach for the then International Rugby Board, who together with fellow Argentine coach Carlos Molinari told her that if she worked hard, she would be invited to the following year’s Dubai Sevens.
She took the challenge head on, suffering financially as she took on part-time jobs to prepare. The experience still lives with her.
“Dubai 2012 was my peak – I met and became friends with Alhambra Nievas as we both spoke Spanish.”
“We officiated the touch-line in the final. Walking onto a full sevens stadium was incredible, something I will never forget.” The Black Ferns beat South Africa 41-0 with Amy Perrett on the whistle.
Upon returning, she struggled to maintain the high performance goals set for her.
“It was a professional level which I had a tough time maintaining. It was hard, I lost a lot of enthusiasm.”
Still a much-respected figure in the women’s game, in 2016 she was asked to become a coach by her national union. Whilst it forced her to move outside of her normal sphere, it allowed her to stay in the sport.
“It felt very good when they asked me for my opinion on who should officiate the final in a tournament. The following year I was on my own in tournaments.”
A week ago, she became a World Rugby Educator. As life begins to look more normal, the game is a place she feels safe.
“The COVID-19 pandemic hit me hard. I live alone and it affected me big-time, and I was diagnosed with nervous epilepsy.”
“I work ad honorem with local referees, who continue to trust me, coaching them and going to games with them.”
Having coached “six minutes in a senior men’s club game” Laureana is very happy with the career she’s had and hopes to do some more refereeing.
“There were a lot of people that did not accept me. With time, I won their affection,” closes trailblazer Laureana.