Female rugby union trailblazers are aiming high – on and off the pitch

<span>Composite: Getty Images</span>
Composite: Getty Images

Hollie Davidson, international referee

The World Cup in New Zealand does not just offer players and coaches an opportunity to shine. For fast-rising, ambitious referees such as Scotland’s Hollie Davidson it is also a chance to show that female officials are every bit as capable as their male counterparts and should be appointed to men’s World Cup fixtures sooner rather than later.

The 30-year-old made history in June when she took charge of Portugal v Italy, the first woman to referee a men’s Six Nations team in a Test. “It did feel huge at the time. The nerves and stress going into it were quite high. But I look back on it really fondly.

“The guys still challenged as hard as they would have done if it had been a male counterpart. If they weren’t happy with decisions they definitely told you. When we’re being treated exactly the same is when we’re making real progress.”

An economic history graduate from Edinburgh University, who has also worked in banking, she did not duck some tricky decisions in Lisbon. “In a game like that you want to stay under the radar but I ended up giving two penalty tries and four yellow cards.”

Hollie Davidson talks with a player in the Test between Portugal and Italy in June.
Hollie Davidson talks with a player in the Test between Portugal and Italy in June. Photograph: Patrícia de Melo Moreira/AFP/Getty Images

The experience has intensified her desire for more high-profile men’s appointments. “I’d love to make it into the Champions Cup in the next couple of years. After that? You never know. But I’d love to be able to referee a Tier 1 v Tier 1 game, whether in the Six Nations or not. That would be unbelievable and would leave a real legacy.”

For Davidson – and, among others, Ireland’s Joy Neville and England’s Sara Cox – being chosen to referee next month’s World Cup final in Auckland would be a further step towards more widespread recognition in the men’s game. “I suppose the only thing that would stop me would be the physical side of things. No longer is the referee the slightly unathletic guy in the middle. I’m telling you, the boys at the top are fit guys. It’s a case of trying to hold on to their coattails.”

Related: Women’s Rugby World Cup 2022: group-by-group preview

Having grown up in the village of Aboyne in Aberdeenshire – she played primary school cricket at nearby Balmoral – she was good enough to represent Scotland at U20 level, only to dislocate a shoulder a few days before she was due to make her full Test debut. As a former chirpy scrum-half, she accepts there is an element of poacher turned gamekeeper. “I totally understand that emotions can get high. There will be days when people will get under your skin but it’s about trying to keep as composed as possible.

“Everyone has an opinion on refereeing. If you listened to that feedback all the time you’d probably start doubting yourself.” That does not mean she enjoys lecturing people in real life. “I enjoy having normal conversations with people who don’t know what a scrum or a lineout is. When I’m out with my friends I prefer them to make the decisions.”

Sarra Elgan, BT Sport presenter

Back in the day, Sarra Elgan used to be a children’s TV presenter so, in many respects, little has changed. There must be moments, stood on a freezing touchline being teased by the mischievous Austin Healey and Ben Kay, when she misses the more mature vibe of a CBBC studio. Her old life interviewing pop stars such as Britney Spears was also a shade more glamorous. “It was the best time. Who was the nicest? Justin Timberlake was lovely …”

Instead, she is out there, in all weathers, clutching her BT Sport microphone and continuing to blaze a distinctive trail as one of rugby’s most recognisable broadcasters. Perhaps her crowning glory came during last year’s Covid-affected British & Irish Lions tour in South Africa when she was not only the main pitchside anchor and interviewer but performed her duties in Welsh and English. “Welsh was the language at home, I went to a Welsh school and so do my children. I think in Welsh so it almost comes easier to me than English.”

Sarra Elgan, the BT Sport presenter
Sarra Elgan, the BT Sport presenter, says rugby union is a more open-minded place than is sometimes perceived. Photograph: David Rogers/Getty Images

Elgan has always been in thrall to the oval ball, her father, Elgan Rees, having played for Neath, Wales and the Lions. As a child she loved nothing more than a Neath home game at the Gnoll. “I miss those early days of rugby. I used to go to the local newsagents across the road and get my pick ’n’ mix and then watch my dad play, I was kind of brought up on the rugby pitches of Wales.”

The one-time actor, who is married to the Ireland assistant coach, Simon Easterby, also had a central role in transforming the previously male-dominated face of on-screen rugby. “Fifteen or 20 years ago the landscape was very different for women in sport. I always felt when I went for interviews that I was a little young or a little bit too blonde.”

While not every online troll applauds her work – “Of course there are sexist comments but they are getting less, thank goodness” – she is adamant the world of rugby union is a more open-minded place than it is sometimes perceived. “Different people might have a different view but, hand on heart, I’ve never felt disrespected or that anyone’s looked down on me.”

Experience has also taught her the value of authenticity. “What’s changed is that women in sport can now be who they want to be. They don’t feel they have to adhere or conform to a certain stereotype. When I first started I felt I had to be what I perceived a sports presenter was. But after a while I just thought: ‘I’m going to be me.’”

Verity Panter, stadium announcer and MC

At the Rugby League World Cup fixture between France and Greece in Doncaster on 17 October, listen out for the “Voice of God”, AKA professional stadium announcer Verity Panter. It is merely the latest challenge for Britain’s only female licensed boxing MC, who also performs the matchday hosting duties for Exeter Chiefs women.

The self-styled “Queen of Queensberry” sees absolutely no reason why booming male announcers such as Michael ‘Let’s Get Ready To Rumble’ Buffer should have a monopoly when it comes to setting the tone at sporting events. As she says, drily: “Ideally you wouldn’t have a female MC or a male MC. You’d just have an MC.”

Equally at home ringside at York Hall as she is at Sandy Park, the Devon-based Panter hails from a family of intrepid women. One of her sisters, Nellie Burroughes, is a stunt performer who has worked on numerous movies, including Wonder Woman. Another sister, Annabelle, is a pilot. “She builds aeroplanes and trains people on Tiger Moths. And still people walk into the hanger and go: ‘Isn’t it nice you’ve got a woman to keep everything clean in here.’”

Panter also has an instructive story to tell about her school days in Oxfordshire. “My headmistress said I wouldn’t amount to much. She said I’d probably leave school, become a secretary and marry my boss. No one thought you could go and work in sport or be an MC.’

Which explains why she wants to encourage rugby’s administrators, among others, to break with tradition and put more women on the mic. “People can say what they like about me but the feedback has been really good, both for the rugby stadium announcing and the boxing. I just want to create change. If girls see a woman doing a job they think is a male job they’ll think: ‘Girls can do any job.’”

While her desire to work in boxing has an element of female solidarity about it – “If women are fighting it’s nice to have another woman in the ring championing them” – she is also keen to disprove the myth that only men can make themselves properly heard in noisy stadiums. “I don’t copy the men at all. A lot of them just try and shout a lot. It’s all about the tone of your voice. What I really train to do is to keep the pitch low. I don’t want to get all squeaky and shouty.”

In an ideal world she would love the chance to audition for the most coveted job in women’s rugby – “I’d like to announce the Red Roses at Twickenham” – and to be involved on Eddie Hearn’s Matchroom boxing bills. “Where I possibly fall down in boxing is that they love American or Canadian accents. They like a bit of American showbiz.

“Sometimes it’s more about the accent than the fact I’m female, I think. But it’s not about me, it’s about the competitors. I’ve always thought of myself as a storyteller. You’ve got to build them up.”