We chatted to Premiership referee Sara Cox, following on from her debut with the whistle in the Gallagher Premiership on Saturday...
How have you found the week just gone? It must have been a whirlwind…
Absolutely! I was just saying to someone recently that it’s been fantastic that the way people have engaged. It was something that I never expected, and I never expected to be on that sort of level. To get so many people in person, on the day, through social media platforms, through emails, through text messages, just wanting to say congratulations and wanting to give you that little bit of support. I can’t thank everyone enough and I can’t tell people how appreciative I am of that, and the way they’ve come across and the way everyone just wants to keep that momentum going makes my job easier a bit!
Tell us about your refereeing journey, you used to play didn’t you, so where did the passion come from, and why did you decide that was for you?
I did play for a little bit, I got up to England trials, and I was like ‘Okay, I’ll have a go at this!’ and I had three go’s at it and I wasn’t quite successful. At the time, Giselle Mather was the England U21s coach, and she was like ‘this is where I think you need to work on in your game, this is where you need to go with it’. I was in one of the last trials and I took a bit of a knock and I lied on the floor and thought ‘Why am I here?’ and to do a bit of soul searching in the middle of a rugby game was a bit of an interesting one, until the medics came on to help! I looked back on my time, as I got older, and thought: ‘my heart just never really felt in it, and it wasn’t enough to keep going’. And I think that’s why I never made it with the trials because I never really committed myself to getting better, to do more and so on.
I then went on to think: ‘Shall I look at this coaching stuff and see what’s on offer there’, and I started to look at it, and being involved with U14s and working my up the age groups, and I thought ‘I can’t really be responsible for sculpting someone’s path as a youngster and helping direct them when I don’t really know myself’ as I was only 17 at the time and I didn’t have enough life experience to be able to give back to people.
I used to be a referee’s worst nightmare on the pitch, I still wanted to be involved in the game, and I thought ‘there’s another avenue, it’ll keep me fit, keep me engaged’ and here I am now!
The progression from being a player in your early days to a referee – is it something that you want to see more of, so more Premiership and Allianz 15 players thinking of that transition to referee?
Definitely. The perfect example is Karl Dickson in England, in Ireland you’ve got Joy Neville and with her playing CV and her experience all added to her being a very good referee very quickly. The same with Scotland with Hollie Davidson, she played for Scotland U20s, you look at South Africa, Aimee Barrett-Theron, she played for South Africa. There are all these people that have come through who have a wealth of knowledge of the game of rugby, and they’ve brought that and transitioned that in.
You can even take that through to Richard Haughton, he came through a Saracens background, has done all the really good stuff as a player, and then moved across to the refereeing type of stuff and had a successful career in 7s, I just came back from the Olympics with him.
There are all these types of people who are bringing this wealth of knowledge through, and it’s definitely something we want to get more of and bring more people in and have a different sort of perspective on rugby as well.
Tell us how you found out the appointment to the game?
I found out via email! You get an email to confirm it all. However, prior to that, we did have conversations. It was supposed to happen towards the end of last season, but unfortunately it didn’t due to COVID reasons. But it was a blessing in disguise as well, it enabled me to go back to the drawing board and say ‘let’s make sure I’m in the right place mentally and physically, and come out and do a good job for that game’.
I think it was a loose conversation that was had, where they said: ‘Okay, be prepared, we might want to do this again, and these are the dates we’d be looking to do it’. It was then for Spreaders (Tony Spreadbury, the RFU’s Head of Professional Game Match Officials) to firm that up and say it is happening. So that email came out with my name on it, and I thought “okay it’s getting closer!” and to be honest, it wasn’t until we actually got to the ground where I thought it is definitely going ahead!
How did it feeling running on to the Stoop, a few minutes before kickoff, being that the first female referee in the Premiership?
It felt unbelievable, the whole thing from the week before, to the event, to the week after has been unbelievable. I haven’t really put my feet on the floor just yet and absorbed what’s happened. It’ll probably happen in a few years’ time when I look back at it! But at the end of the day, when you run out on the pitch, and you’ve taken that moment to absorb what is happening, you’ve got a job to do, and you have to do that job. If I went out there and completely messed everything up, then I’ve not gone out to do ultimately what I’m paid to do, and it’s the same with the players. We’re all there and paid to go and do a job, so you’ve got to switch off a little bit at the same time, and make sure you’re engaging with the right bits of the game, and not getting too bothered or worried about what’s happening on the sidelines.
You got signed shirts from the two teams at the end of the game, that was a nice gesture for you to keep – have you decided where you are going to put them yet?
I don’t actually have a lot of rugby memorabilia in my house. I don’t have any shirts up, there’s a certificate for me taking part in the Olympics and another for something completely different, and that’s pretty much it! There’s nothing significant on the wall because sometimes I just want to come home and switch off to rugby. But it’s only since I’ve got older where I’ve got a little bit wiser, I’ve started to realise a bit that some of this is significant, and it isn’t just significant for me, it’s significant for other people and it’s okay to have shirts on the wall and remind yourself that it was cool, and good fun. I think I’ll start clearing some room for stuff, but I don’t know when!
How were the two sides on the day?
Both sides were brilliant. We were having a laugh, there were a few times where we smiled between each other, and a few times where they asked some questions, and I’d expect that, it’s right to do so. Ultimately, I make decisions that can spin ways that play is happening and the momentum of games, and sometimes they want clarity on that, they want to understand where you are coming from, and it’s only right that I engage with them and be able to explain to them. Now, that isn’t always the right time, there isn’t always the right tone to do in it, but I definitely make sure that they have an open line of communication if needs be, and I think they respect that. On the day, they definitely respected that, and I hopefully respected them and the things they wanted to achieve as well.
How have the rest of your referee colleagues been towards you – you seem to be a close knit bunch?
They’ve been amazing. I had Karl (Dickson) and Christophe (Ridley) on the phone immediately after, and asked: ‘How did it go, what went on, what was the experience like’. They are genuinely interested because it’s slightly different to how it plays out for them. There’s obviously a lot of hype, a lot of intention about it, and there’s a lot of intrigue from the rest of the group as to how that looked.
I got some really solid bits of advice from Wayne (Barnes), Tom (Foley), and Luke (Pearce) to go out there, absorb that and it was the same from some of the younger guys, so Anthony Woodthorpe, Jake Makepeace, they are all there and they say ‘Ok Coxy, you need to go out there and absorb this and take in what’s going around you at the same time when that first whistle goes, you know you need to switch on, you have a job to do’. Those were really sound bits of advice and there were some sound people who wanted to get behind me and really support what was going on, and I think that’s lovely and great to do so.
Young girls will certainly be looking up to you as a role model on what they can achieve following your amazing success, what would you say to them?
I’d like to give some advice to lots of different people, and I want to make sure everyone understands that it is a game that is inclusive, and I want to continue that inclusivity and want to make that happen. It’s about going out there and having fun, and I think it would be wrong for me to go out here and say “Go out there and be a referee” I think what it is about is there are lots of different elements to all of this, and sometimes we don’t know about it.
So, the likes of myself and us having this chat now, without having reporters/journalists reporting on this and get this out there to the public, we wouldn’t know about it. We’ve got to keep that chain linked up and we’ve got to make sure people understand that there are lots of roles so just go and explore rugby. Whether that be tag rugby, or walking rugby for older people, go and just engage and enjoy it. I love nothing more to go to the rugby with my mates, not just to watch it but to be with my mates, and it’s just a lovely place where you can get people involved and get people in the same place.
What’s next for you and your career, what are your aspirations going forward?
I just want to enjoy the journey and make sure I put myself in the right place to say that I gave 110% effort. Like I say to people, you have no control over that selection so for you to say I specifically say I want to go for this event at this time, it just narrows you down so much because ultimately you have no control over that, but what you do have control over is how hard you train, how well you review, how well you engage with other people. It’s about doing that side of things, and it’s about, for me, being able to sign off whenever that day comes that I retire, and say I gave 110% and I could have given no more, the appointments have nothing to do with me, I just put myself in the right position at the right time.