Female refs rule the Canterbury rugby roost

17:00, Apr 11 2014
Nicky Inwood, Chelsea Gurr
UP FOR CHALLENGE: Division one rugby referees Nicky Inwood, left, and Chelsea Gurr.

One deals with nervous guests before wild animal encounters at Orana Park and one's been hit on by a 10-year-old boy and battled meningitis.

So a few grizzled senior rugby players are a walk in the park for division one rugby referees Nicky Inwood and Chelsea Gurr.

Inwood, 44, and Gurr, 27, referee the top level of senior men's rugby in Christchurch. Inwood, a former Black Fern, has been officiating games since 1999 and this year will head to her fifth women's World Cup and her fourth as an official.

She's been refereeing senior men's rugby around the country for a few years, but last year the Orana Park visitor co-ordinator became the first woman to referee division one in Christchurch.

Last Saturday Gurr, a sports massage therapy student, became the second.

She too is on the fast track, has been involved in the women's sevens circuit, though a bout of meningitis left her on the sideline for six months.

She's fully fit again now, has sevens gigs in her near future and has her sights set on refereeing in the sevens competition at the Rio Olympics.

They are two of just six New Zealand women in the national high performance squad.

Though they get the odd taunt or cheeky comment - and plenty of curious looks - from players and punters alike, they said most of their treatment has been first rate.

Marist Albion veteran and captain Rowan O'Gorman played in Gurr's first division one match and was pleased that the best referees were looking after senior rugby.

"From the players' point of view, it makes no difference to us if they're male or female. We just want the best referees - and the most consistent. Chelsea was great to deal with on Saturday and we've got no complaints."

Inwood and Gurr said they've got nothing but respect and gratitude for the Canterbury Rugby Football Union and how they've been supported, but they know they've worked as hard as anyone to get to where they have.

"I feel like I've had to work twice as hard as some people to get here and to prove I can do it, but I'm okay with that because it's made me a better referee," Gurr said.

Inwood too found the bar she's had to reach has been higher.

"My age and speed were always used against me.

"That was frustrating because I never got a chance to prove they weren't an issue, but now I've been given that chance and I just try and show them what I can do."

Inwood has now refereed more than 70 first-class games and 30 women's test matches.

"You've got to have thick skin, but all referees get a bit of grief. I still enjoy what I do," Gurr said.

"I just shrug my shoulders and tell them the laws don't change just because I'm refereeing," Inwood added.

They've come into the role in completely different ways. Inwood was playing and was well known in Whanganui so when she filled in for a male referee who didn't turn up, she had a strong knowledge of the game.

Gurr, whose father is a referee, had been around rugby her whole life, but never played it.

"I was too scared, I only weigh 50kg now and I was smaller at school."

Gurr started as a teenager in Nelson and it was there, after she'd tied a young boy's shoelace for him during a game, that the plucky young lad asked for her number.

"I was shocked," she said. "I was 15 or 16. I didn't give him my number by the way."

Inwood and Gurr encourage all young - and not so young - women into refereeing and said the CRFU and their referee education office Lyndon McKendry were brilliant.

"There's such a great opportunity, if you're willing to work hard and learn, to move through the ranks," Gurr said.

"Look at Nicky and I; she's off to another World Cup and I'm on the sevens circuit."

McKendry, who has been involved with refereeing for 36 years, said now that pathways were open for women's referees, hard-working women could officiate the women's national provincial competition and more.

"There are far more opportunities," she said.

"There's the sevens circuit and there are more international matches now too."


Fairfax Media