Once a tough-tackling back-row forward for the Spanish national side, Olympic referee Alhambra Nievas was the epitome of glamour as she stepped up onto the stage to receive the World Rugby Referee Award alongside Rasta Rasivhenge in London last month.
Nievas is one of the female officials blazing a trail through international and elite level club rugby, and not just in the women’s game. A couple of weeks after the awards ceremony, the Granada native was back where she feels most comfortable – on a rugby pitch, with flag in hand, running the line for the USA versus Tonga test in San Sebastien, becoming only the third woman to do so in a men’s second-tier international. The fact her appointment went largely unnoticed suits Nievas just fine, she would like nothing more than referee discussions to be about talent and not gender.
“We are getting more men’s games and I think it is good that we have some opportunities to show that we’re ready for that level. It is a positive development but I hope that one day we don’t talk about women or men refereeing, instead we'll just talk about refereeing and the passion, hard work and performance that goes into it,” she said in an interview with World Rugby.
Nievas’s breakthrough comes on the back of a number of other ‘firsts’ for female officials in 2016. In March, Helen O’Reilly ran the line for Munster against Zebre – the first female to do so in the Guinness PRO12, a ground-breaking move repeated later in the year in the Super Rugby competition and the European Rugby Challenge Cup.
Amy Perrett (pictured) became the first female official at a Super Rugby game as an assistant referee for Melbourne Rebels’ clash with Western Stormers in June, while former Ireland captain Joy Neville was part of the team of three for the Challenge Cup West Country derby between Bath and Bristol in October.
After coming through the Super Rugby test with flying colours, Perrett said: “Did I feel the pressure? Definitely. I felt I had to perform not just for myself but for all the other female officials out there. I think if I did a bad job it could have put us back a few more years but luckily everything went smoothly and hopefully we can keep pushing forward.”
Push forward, they have. Claire Daniels is another to make new ground after becoming the first female fourth official in English Premiership history when she took on the role for Exeter’s home win against Bristol at Sandy Park in September. “Female officials are not the novelty they once were and my aim is to go as high as I can,” said Daniels.
WORLD CUP AMBITION
Having refereed the Olympic women’s rugby sevens gold medal match in Rio de Janeiro, 2016 will take some beating for Nievas. Although a first Women’s Rugby World Cup final would strengthen an already impressive CV.
Nievas has a no-frills approach to achieving this goal. “I refereed two games at the last tournament and the focus for me this season is to try and be at the World Cup in Ireland. But I don’t like to think too far ahead, I like to think about my next game.”