A FORMER captain of the Watsonians women’s team will become the first female referee in the 130-year history of the Melrose Sevens tomorrow.
New-Zealand-born Alex Pratt, a Scottish Rugby Union referee for the past six years, will be part of a team of seven officials at the annual event at The Greenyards, sponsored again this year by Aberdeen Asset Management.
Having grown up in a rugby environment – both her father and grandfather played at club level in her native country – the 38-year-old environmental engineer is well aware of the traditional importance of the Melrose event, which is where the seven-a-side game was born back in 1883. But, while delighted by her invitation to take part, she believes it is simply a natural step given the greater involvement of women in all levels of rugby, and looks forward to the day when female participation is no longer seen as noteworthy.
“It’s a great honour,” she said. “Of course I know how important the Melrose Sevens are and what they mean to everyone in the town and beyond, so it was a compliment to be asked to take part as the first female referee. To be honest, I believe I was invited because of what I do and not because I happen to be female. There are a number of women referees rising through the ranks and one day it will stop being a novelty. For now, though, people outside rugby think it’s unusual, but inside the sport it’s taken for granted.
“I think it is an honour to referee any game and I’ll be taking that approach at the Melrose Sevens. I believe that every game is a test for referees to get things right. I’m a methodical person and I like to be well organised before each game, but of course you cannot plan for every eventuality. That’s what makes the game, and especially the Sevens, so exciting”.
A lifelong enthusiast of touch rugby, Pratt joined Watsonians on moving to Edinburgh 11 years ago, and stayed with them for eight years. Her first experience of refereeing came when, with the 15-a-side season over, she helped out officiating at a touch tournament. She enjoyed it so much that she enrolled for a foundation course with the SRU, since when she has steadily progressed up the ranks. “My first game was the Watsonians 4th XV, then the next was a school game. I probably officiate at about one game a week during the season, both 15s and sevens, and I probably referee more at men’s games than at women’s.
“I think that’s important, because in Scotland no distinction is made between male and female officials and that’s good for the game. We have to have the same level of fitness as men and it’s right that there is no distinction between us – we are all referees and get treated as such. I’ve been refereeing sevens since Fira-AER [the European Rugby Association] ran a programme to encourage the development of female officials. I’ve been reffing sevens with about eight other girls from around Europe for the last three years.
“I’ve been to the Netherlands, Moscow, Belgium, Spain, Romania, and Trinidad & Tobago. As well as the Melrose Sevens I’ll be officiating at the Emirates Airline Glasgow 7s in May, as well as working at tournaments in Slovakia and Belgium.”
In common with many referees and amateur players both male and female, Pratt is reliant on sympathetic employers who allow her the flexibility required to train and to officiate. She knows she and her colleagues also depend on the many volunteers who help out in administering referees’ associations. “Between games the training involves regular sessions in the gym, and, every Wednesday, a meeting with the local referee society,” she explained. “Then every fortnight we have a technical session to discuss any recent IRB directives, for example. I couldn’t have done all this without them. Referee coaches come along to the first few games of all new referees, then leave you to get on with it for a while, then come back every so often to check your progress and advise you.
“I’d encourage anyone who’s got an interest in refereeing to give it a go. There’s plenty of support and lots of opportunities for females in Europe, particularly with sevens.”
• The Aberdeen Asset Management Melrose Sevens takes place tomorrow (first tie 11.30am). For further details see www.melrose7s.com.