It was not until a tweet appeared from the World Rugby social media team that Sara Cox realised she had made another piece of history.

Cox, who has blazed a trail for female match officials in her nine years as an international referee, knew how many tests she had refereed heading into Canada’s World Rugby Pacific Four Series 2023 encounter with Australia earlier this month.

But she did not know that taking charge of her 35th test at TD Place Stadium in Ottawa on 15 July would make her the most-capped female test referee of all time.

That would change following the match when Cox turned her phone on to find messages of support and congratulations on her latest achievement.

“I knew how many caps I did have, but I didn’t know that had come anywhere close to being the all-time [record],” Cox told World Rugby.

“I think the whole rugby world is really positive around the female game at the moment. So, it was nice to have the positive vibes if you like, from that game but also then that on top of it.

“So, it was a really nice finish to the tournament to be honest.”

Passing the baton

When World Rugby caught up with the English referee, she had not yet spoken to previous record holder Clare Daniels but there is no doubting the impact her compatriot, a colleague for the majority of her career, has had on her.

“Without her, I most definitely wouldn’t be where I am now, and the same with Claire Hodnett, same with the ladies that came before us in the international scene.

“So, I think it's really important that we acknowledge the fact that if they hadn't paved the way, there's no chance that I would have been able to take that same path and then take the baton on myself.

“They've been massively important to this whole thing.”

News of Cox’s landmark appearance is the latest in a long line of achievements that are shining a light on female match officials.

Hollie Davidson recently became the first woman to referee at the World Rugby U20 Championship, while Joy Neville has been selected as a TMO for Rugby World Cup 2023 and Aimee Barrett-Theron took charge of Italy’s WXV play-off win against Spain last weekend to draw level with Daniels and move within one of Cox’s record.

Cox, who became the game’s first professional female referee in 2016, is thankful to be refereeing at a time when she has a group of peers she can seek advice, support and encouragement from.

“It’s just sometimes being able to bounce ideas off each other,” Cox explained.

“But also being able to have conversations that don't relate to rugby, taking you out of that space and being able just to chat generally because that can sometimes be the time that you decompress. Where you're just having a chat with mates.

“But, also just bouncing ideas, ‘What did you do in this situation and how did you handle it?’ You can see with the things that Hollie's doing, you know, the first female to be involved in an U20 Championship, that's amazing.

“Those are things that we look up to and I look up to, to be able to say, ‘How is that?’ ‘How were the games?’ ‘What does that look like for you?’ But also, be able to be there to support others that might be able to come through and be heading towards that in my own union as well.”

She added: “We spur each other on, I think [with] that community feel and that family feel. But it's not just those girls, it's the other girls as well and even look at the girls that were at the Pac Four and the guys that were there as well.

“Being around those people, regardless of what your accolades are, it's about good human beings surrounding you.

“And I think, for me, I've been involved a long time now and this is probably by far the most exciting time [in terms] of the people that are involved, and I love that.

“That's what motivates me, is those experiences with those people. You can sometimes just park the rugby bit and that comes later.”

Exciting journey

Another of those peers is Alhambra Nievas, the current World Rugby Women’s High Performance Referee Manager, who was an assistant referee on the day that Cox took charge of her first women’s test, a RWC 2014 warm-up between Spain and Ireland.

That match in Valladolid was watched by 400 people, a far cry from the record crowds that have greeted so many women’s matches since the ground-breaking RWC 2021.

Cox was in the middle on 8 July when a national record 10,092 fans watched the Black Ferns beat Canada at TD Place Stadium in Ottawa. The growth of the women’s game has brought new eyeballs and additional pressure, but also excitement.

“Where the women’s game is going at the moment is massively exciting. So, that again keeps you motivated because you want to see what happens with the game and you want to be involved,” she said.

“I think we’re only just starting and what the women’s game could end up being is something enormous and I think very, very exciting.”

It is a journey she is hopeful of helping more young women and girls be a part of.

“What I like to focus on is the fact that I’m doing the best that I can for myself, but also the game,” Cox said.

“I've taken it so far with the domestic side of stuff, with the (English) Premiership and some of the international stuff that I've done but the likes of Hollie Davidson are going to take it to that next level.

“And again, that creates a blueprint for the next person to come through and say, ‘actually, we know where we can go with this’. Because there was a time when I first started that none of this would ever have been possible.”