As she reflects on her trailblazing career as a match official, Joy Neville is hopeful she has “knocked down” doors to help make it easier for current and future generations of female referees to perform on the highest stage.

Neville will take charge of her 27th and final test on Sunday, when France host Italy in the Guinness Women’s Six Nations 2024, bringing the curtain down on a career marked by a series of firsts.

The former Ireland number eight, who played 70 times and won a Women’s Six Nations Grand Slam for her country, took the whistle at two Women’s Rugby World Cups, one Rugby World Cup Sevens and was a regular presence on the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series between 2017-20.

Referee Joy Neville reflects on her career ahead of her final test
Ireland's Joy Neville reflects on her highlights as a player and match official ahead of her final test as a referee in Paris this weekend.

In 2020, Neville made history as the first woman to perform Television Match Official duties in a major men’s international competition – the Autumn Nations Cup – and is the only female match official to date to be selected for a men’s Rugby World Cup, fulfilling the same role in France last year. In 2018, she became the first woman to referee a PRO14 match.

Neville also took charge of the Women’s Rugby World Cup 2017 final in Belfast and received the World Rugby Referee Award and earned a full-time contract with the Irish Rugby Football Union in the same year.

“Refereeing the Women's World Cup 2017 on home soil, that was very special. Probably due to the fact that I played in two World Cups and never got anywhere close to getting to a World Cup final and then getting there as a referee,” Neville said.

“The first PRO14 game, that was a very special time for me as the first female and something I've always tried to minimise is just about being female and being the first, just make it the norm. Thankfully I think we've broken down that door.

“But obviously most recently going to the men's World Cup as a match official is something that I'll cherish.

“Currently I don't think I've looked back and properly realised the experiences that I've had, and I'm really looking forward to just taking a breath and enjoying those moments properly.”

New chapter

Although she is set to hang up her whistle, Neville will remain involved with World Rugby in the new role of Elite Women’s 15s Match Officials Head Coach.

It is one she is looking forward to. “I’m excited about identifying more referees to be involved in the game,” she said.

And she is hopeful that she has played a role in helping to change perceptions around female match officials and creating more opportunities for the likes of Hollie Davidson, Aimee Barrett-Theron and others.

“I'd like to think that I've knocked down those doors for the likes of Hollie, Aimee and others to come through and make it easier for them because it's not easy in a male dominated environment,” Neville added.

Referee Joy Neville on her new role with World Rugby
Referee Joy Neville talks about her new role as Elite Women's 15s Match Officials Head Coach with World Rugby.

“Sometimes you feel the hangovers a little longer than that of your male counterparts, and it's a quite daunting environment. But when you strip it right back, they're people and we're all striving to be the best that we can be to create a platform for the players to play a game.

“I think that we all have a role. I think people in power have a role to be able to provide others with opportunity, you know, to either sink or swim.

“And you can see some really good talent coming through the ranks. I think it's just about identifying more because there's plenty more out there and it's about supporting that.”

On her new World Rugby role, Neville said: “For me, it’s the excitement of a new challenge.

“It's a new chapter and my involvement in a different capacity to be involved with the girls and try to help them be the best that they can be, from an individual perspective but collectively as well.

“As you can see, it's a very unique group. We're very passionate about what we do, and we just want the best for the game. So, it's really exciting.”