Talking Grassroots: History made with first all-female team of officials

One of the many great things about being involved in Rugby League, and no matter for how long that may have been, is that something new – and positive – crops up from time to time. 

So it was last week when BARLA announced the identity of the referee, touch-judges and reserve whistler for last Saturday’s Under 12s Yorkshire Cup Final between Lock Lane and West Hull at the Millennium Stadium, Post Office Road, Featherstone.

In so doing the Association was making history, as it was the first occasion on which a male match had been controlled by an all-female team of officials.

The names of 15-year-old referee Rhiannon Horsman, touch-judges Annabelle Jackson and Megan Mills (who are also in their early teens) and fourth official Beth Neilson (a tad older at 29) will resonate down the ages as Rugby League takes another big step forward.

I can see the time coming, and it’s probably not that far off, when such appointments are no longer seen as being newsworthy, or even worthy of comment. For example Vivienne Gleave attracted headlines when she was Widnes’ physio about three decades or more ago; no one bats an eyelid at such appointments any more. 

Indeed, coming back to female whistlers, I’d momentarily overlooked, as I was typing this offering, that Caitlin Beevers refereed last week’s televised Betfred Challenge Cup tie between Bentley and Stanningley, and as an England international perhaps almost inevitably controlled it with a player’s touch; there can be no higher praise, really. 

A real trend-setter for female referees was, of course, Julia Lee, who picked up the whistle back in the early 1980s and who is now busy on her ‘Life with the Lionesses’ project. Julia, who is naturally very interested in this latest development, was able to hep with a bit of background information as well. It can be a shade risky for journalists to proclaim that any venture is, in fact, historic, and Julia was able to remind me that all-female teams of match officials have, indeed, been used previously, at Women’s Amateur Rugby League Challenge Cup Finals (and while we’re on that subject, incidentally, mark your calendar for Easter Sunday, when the final of this great event will take place on its traditional slot. I assume it will be at Featherstone Rovers, but more of that anon).

Someone who deserves praise for Saturday’s appointments, apart from Horsman, Jackson, Mills and Neilson themselves, who were all there by dint of hard work and application, is Match Officials Appointments Officer Steve Race, who has made a big impact since taking on the role towards the end of last year. 

I’ve known Steve for many years, as one of the best referees around at the grassroots, and he’s bringing those well-honed attributes (and the crucial quality of being able to listen to advice) to his new position. He reflected, when the news broke: “Rhiannon has only been refereeing for a short period of time but was nominated by her society, so I thought why not make it an all-female team, which I’ve managed to do?”

And why not? As Steve told the RFL: “It just shows how the game is growing and how many females are wanting to take up the whistle. Female involvement is getting stronger and stronger each year.”

Liam Moore, the RFL’s Match Officials Recruitment and Retention Manager (another lad who is a top whistler himself) said: “Three of these four officials have been recruited in the last 18 months, which is so encouraging in terms of new officials coming into the game and making so much progress.

“They’ve got great role models in the likes of Caitlin Beevers and Tara Jones, who have worked so hard to get to their current positions in the match officials team.”

It’s all made for a cracking start to 2022, while the Challenge Cup has already added extra sparkle. Last week’s televised games yet again served hard evidence that amateur Rugby League is a terrific spectacle which rarely, if ever, fails to deliver. I saw two of the televised/streamed games (Orrell St James v the Army, and Bentley v Stanningley), on the BBC and OurLeague respectively, and the entertainment – and the coverage – was superb. I missed the tie between Rochdale Mayfield and Wigan St Patricks, which was streamed by The Sportsman, but by all accounts the contest was another thriller, and very well presented. All of which makes me think that National Conference League bosses wouldn’t be out of order by any means if they sought to resurrect the live coverage of fixtures we all enjoyed so much three or four years ago. The product they have to offer is superb – that’s a simple fact. 

All this may be irrelevant as regards successful bids for World Cup funding by our amateur clubs, but I doubt that it hinders. Yet more good news last week was that over £1,250,000 has been pumped into five more clubs, as reported elsewhere in today’s issue, taking the total overall past £15 million. 

Wow! Heady times, indeed.

For all that, I was very saddened to learn of the death of one of my old team-mates at the Middleton Arms, Peter Richardson, who passed away last week after bravely battling cancer. Pete, who was in his early 70s, was a top bloke, one of the best in fact, and he will be badly missed by his family, friends and old rugby mates.

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