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Top 5 female referees

The Rugby World Cup (2021) in New Zealand saw an 18-strong team of match officials led by an all-female team of referees.


Who were these women that blazed a trail for female officials, thus breaking through the barriers of the previously male dominated sport? We take a look back at how it all started.

Women who commit to being a female rugby referee have to transform themselves physically in order to meet the rigorous standards set by the RFU match officials panel.

Let’s face it, whatever way you look at it, women are made up differently to men. Men, generally, are naturally quicker than women. That is the bottom line. At the highest level the rugby game is fast and the referee must be as quick and as fit as the players on the pitch.

But this has not deterred a lot of women from pursuing their dream of making it at the highest levels of the sport as referees.

1 Sara Cox (England)

One of the pioneers is Sara Cox, who officiated the Tokyo 2020 rugby sevens women’s rugby final and became the world’s first female professional referee. She made history on 25 September 2021 when she became the first woman ever to referee in the English Premiership.


Cox first took up the sport as a youngster in Devon, England, playing for Exeter, Saracens, Cullompton and Plymouth Albion, and had trials for the England U21 women’s team. However in 2017 Cox decided to retire from playing following an injury, and elected to take up refereeing, initially on a part-time basis.

Top 5 female referees

AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND – NOVEMBER 12: Sara Cox referees during the Bronze Final Rugby World Cup 2021 match between Canada and France at Eden Park on November 12, 2022 in Auckland, New Zealand. (Photo by Fiona Goodall – World Rugby/World Rugby via Getty Images)

Cox proved to be a skilled ref and quickly rose through the ranks, serving as an assistant referee at the 2014 Women’s Rugby World Cup.

Two years later, Cox became the first female referee to be centrally contracted by the Rugby Football Union (RFU), and the world’s first professional female rugby union referee.


In 2016, a few months after her historic appointment (not to mention officiating the Women’s Premiership final between Richmond and Saracens), Cox travelled to Brazil, where she worked as a referee for the inaugural Olympic rugby sevens tournament at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.

She would return to the Olympic stage again at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics in 2021, where she was chosen to officiate the women’s rugby sevens gold medal match between New Zealand and France (New Zealand claimed the gold medal with a 26-12 win over Les Bleus).

2018 was another busy year for the pioneering rugby ref, as she made history on two separate occasions by becoming the first woman to referee an RFU Championship men’s match (England’s second tier), and the first woman to referee a match between two Premiership men’s teams when she officiated a Premiership Rugby Cup fixture between Northampton Saints and Wasps.

Two years later, in August 2020, Cox made headlines yet again after becoming the first female assistant referee in a men’s Premiership fixture. On Saturday, a little over a year after she patrolled the sidelines in that match between Wasps and Bath, it will be Cox’s turn to be the official in the middle for a Premiership contest.

And we have seen her officiating at the World Cup the past few weeks with aplomb.

2 Aimee Barrett-Theron (South Africa)

Barrett-Theron is the only South African on the Rugby World Cup panel and made her first refereeing appearance at a World Cup five years ago.

Another trailblazer, Barrett-Theron made history last year by becoming the first woman to referee a URC match. The former Springbok women’s player’s officiating was even likened to that of Wales officiating great Nigel Owens, who is known for his witty quips towards players. A big compliment if ever there was one.

Aimee Barrett-Theron RWC2021

Aimee Barrett-Theron

Barrett-Theron, a former Springbok Women’s and South African Sevens representative, has played in two Rugby World Cups, and after hanging up her boots, took up refereeing in 2014.

Barrett-Theron’s selection marks another significant milestone in her refereeing career, which has flourished in recent years. Apart from taking the whistle in the Carling Currie Cup and Vodacom United Rugby Championship, she has also officiated at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games, the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series, the Women’s Six Nations and the Rugby World Cup Qualifiers.

Barrett-Theron has consistently featured on various international and national panels in the last seven seasons and is a testament of the high quality of her refereeing. She has been an inspiration to all women’s referees in the country.

3 Maggie Cogger-Orr (New Zealand)

Canadian born Cogger-Orr officiated the opening match of the Rugby World between South Africa and France in her new country, New Zealand earlier in the month.

The economics and accounting teacher, who grew up playing gridiron in Canada has had a big year on the field. She made her Test debut refereeing the Women’s Six Nations in Europe in April and has also officiated Test matches in Australia, Japan and New Zealand.

Top 5 female referees

AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND – OCTOBER 30: Maggie Cogger-Orr referees during the Rugby World Cup 2021 New Zealand Quarterfinal match between England and Australia at Waitakere Stadium on October 30, 2022 in Auckland, New Zealand. (Photo by Fiona Goodall – World Rugby/World Rugby via Getty Images)

Cogger-Orr is no stranger to Eden Park, having recently officiated a women’s friendly there between New Zealand and Japan as part of a doubleheader with the men’s Bledisloe Cup game between the All Blacks and Australia.

Cogger-Orr grew up in Markham, Ontario before moving to Ottawa where she attended Ashbury College. She earned her bachelor’s degree in commerce from McMaster and played rugby with the Marauders for four years.

A year later, in 2014, she moved to New Zealand. Cogger-Orr played for her varsity team the year she lived in Canterbury before joining the legendary College Rifles team in Auckland.

She had worked at home as a referee after suffering a knee injury in her third season at McMaster. She picked up the whistle when cleared to run but not to contact.

It turned out to be the first step to being the center of attention at a World Cup opener.

4 Hollie Davidson (Scotland)

Hollie is a pioneering and inspirational role model who became Scottish Rugby’s first full-time female professional referee in 2017. Since then, she has officiated at the very highest level of the game including the Olympic and Commonwealth Games.

She started playing rugby at University and was selected for the Scotland U20 team, which she continued to be part of until 2012. A senior cap was only denied by injury.


GLASGOW, SCOTLAND – SEPTEMBER 03: Match referee Holli Davidson is seen during the friendly match between Glasgow Warriors and Newcastle Falcons at Scotstoun Stadium on September 03, 2021 in Glasgow, Scotland. (Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images)

In 2015, largely because of a stubborn shoulder injury, she switched her focus to refereeing and built an expert understanding of the sport’s rules, tactics and game situations. Her potential to become a top class rugby official became immediately apparent. Hollie forfeited a lucrative graduate career in financial services to become a professional referee courtesy of a development opportunity with Scottish Rugby. Since then, her officiating career has blossomed superbly.

In 2017, she was selected as assistant referee for the Rugby World Cup final. She followed this by refereeing at the Rugby Europe International Championships, becoming the first female referee at the world famous Melrose 7’s tournament in 2018. That year, she was also selected for the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games Rugby 7s Tournament refereeing the Bronze medal match as well as being the assistant referee in the Gold medal match of the Women’s 7’s Rugby World Cup in San Francisco.

Since 2019, she has regularly officiated in the Women’s 6 Nations Tournament. Hollie was also selected to officiate at the at Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games 7s Tournament where she was the assistant referee in the Gold medal match, and in 2021 she became only the 2nd female to be appointed to referee the Men’s Pro 14 match (Munster vs Benetton). Hollie’s career continues to go from strength to strength with outings expected at more prestigious events in the years ahead.

Hollie is one of Scotland’s, and World rugby’s most inspiring and trail blazing sporting officials, and exemplifies the vital role they play in sport at every level.

5 Amber McLachlan (Australia)

Amber McLachlan took up refereeing as an antidote to a long-term injury but after more than seven years of hard work has set her sights on a place at Rugby World Cup 2021, a dream which became true.

McLachlan, who made her international debut in Samoa in 2019, has since become a regular official within the women’s game, recently taking charge of England’s 66-7 defeat of Wales during the Women’s Six Nations campaign.

Top 5 female referees

LEICESTER, ENGLAND – APRIL 24: Amber McLachlan, the referee, looks on during the TikTok Women’s Six Nations match between England and Ireland at Mattioli Woods Welford Road Stadium on April 24, 2022 in Leicester, England. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

That match at the Twickenham Stoop, played in front of a record crowd for a ticketed women’s match outside of a Rugby World Cup, was McLachlan’s first in the Women’s Six Nations and marked the latest achievement in a “whirlwind” year for the Melbourne-based referee.

As a former player, the lightbulb moment came in her final season of playing. McLachlan had the option to pay around AUS$1,000 to play for Victoria at the state championships or receive expenses to attend the tournament as an assistant referee.

Perhaps unsurprisingly she chose the latter, and didn’t look back. The 33-year-old admits it has been a tough slog, particularly between 2014-16, but her achievements – and a healthy rivalry with Shannon – have kept her going.

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