A match made in seven
Niamh Hay was just five-years-old when her trailblazing mother, Mhairi, became the first Scottish female referee to officiate a full international rugby match when the Red Roses faced Italy back in February 2010.
Now aged 17, the flanker is embarking on her own journey as a referee.
Naturally, with Mhairi playing and refereeing to a high level in Scotland, Niamh and her twin sister Caitlin have always been immersed in rugby.
“We’ve always been around rugby, even since we were babies. Some of the women I play with now talk about remembering when Caitlin and I would run around the side-lines whilst mum was playing.
“We started with the micros and then played a bit at girls age-grade and now we both play for Kirkcaldy Women after we were dispensated last year.”
In between that time, Niamh was offered the chance to do her Introduction to Match Officiating course at school, through Colin George, who was the local Development Officer at the time.
“Obviously I knew my mum was refereeing and got a lot out of it, and over the years refereeing has been talked about on TV a lot more and Hollie (Davidson) has been doing so well too, so I figured it would be good to give it a go.
“I really enjoyed the course, so I started to do a little bit of refereeing through school, and I was having a lot of fun doing it.”
Niamh then went on to complete the next level of match officiating training, and it’s been since then that her career as a referee has taken off, starting with a local tournament in Fife.
“Last year I’d been selected to referee at a women’s 10-a-side tournament in Dunfermline. Up until then I’d only really done refereeing at school, so this was my first proper shot.
“I can’t remember the teams, but it was a roasting hot day in August, and one of the players asked if we could cut the game short, offering me a pint in return.
“I was only 16 at the time, so of course they couldn’t do that, so I politely declined and explained I was only 16, and instantly she was just in awe; ‘No way you’re 16, I could never be a referee and I’m so much older than you, you’ve done such a good job here today’.
“It was just that way where I was met with such respect, but also shock, it was really funny. It was such a great experience, and it gave me the confidence to really go for it.”
In the six months that have passed, Niamh has gone on a steep learning curve, filled to the brim with opportunities to refereeing across boys’ and girls’ age-grade rugby and women’s fixtures too.
Her most recent exploits have included taking to the middle for the Scottish Rugby Girls’ Regional Game Series, and she has also taken part in a match official exchange programme with the Welsh Rugby Union.
The exchange programme was set up by Colin George, who following his time as a Rugby Development Officer, now works for Scottish Rugby as a Match Official Development Manager.
“Other than a school trip to London, I’ve never travelled anywhere without my parents or sister, so going to Wales was quite daunting. It was a great experience though, I loved every second of it. The girls from Wales were really supportive.
“I definitely learned a lot about different styles of refereeing, they had a bit of a different approach or expectation for certain aspects of the game. The fixture was so competitive, it was close margin tries and aggressive breakdowns.
“Adjusting to that was hard and during the game I was petrified because I didn’t want to mess up or embarrass myself, or Scotland. Looking back on it though, it was such a good experience and I’ve grown so much from it.
“I also got the chance to run touch, and that was great too because I haven’t had much of a chance to AR (Assistant Referee) before. Being able to look at the game form a different angle was absolutely amazing because you’re not in the middle and you’re not a spectator, it gives you such a different perspective.”
Of course, as they say, behind every great woman is another great woman.
Mother Mhairi now acts as a mentor, coach and educator to countless officials across the Midlands region, including her daughter.
“My mum is amazing. If I’ve got any questions, even at silly o’clock in the morning, she’ll answer them. She’s always there to impart her wisdom.
“She does so much for me. Everything from making sure I’ve got the right kit or driving me to my games. She’ll sit in the changing room and run through scenarios with me and she’s always on the side-lines to encourage me and give me my water bottle at half-time. She can’t do enough.”
For Mhairi, who now sits of the Scottish Rugby Union ‘Club Rugby Board’ as the match officials representative, she has nothing but admiration for her wee girl
“I was quite surprised when Niamh decided to referee”, said Mhairi.
“I was about 30 when I decided to pick up the whistle, so to do it at such a young age is amazing. When you watch her referee, the maturity she has on the pitch, she communicates really well. To have the confidence and skills to do that at 17 is incredible.
“I’d say Niamh has been quite a shy girl growing up, but she’s now found something she loves and you can see that transfer outside of rugby in terms of her overall confidence.
“I’m just so proud of her. She gives it her all. She works hard in the gym, she trains regularly and always looks to learn.”
Whilst refereeing can often be stereotyped as a lonely pursuit, Mhairi believes the solitude that comes with match officiating has probably only motivated her daughter, adding: “The fact that refereeing doesn’t require a team of 14 other players has probably swayed her towards it a bit too. The number of times she’d have games cancelled because there haven’t been enough players, that doesn’t happen in refereeing because it’s something she can do herself, but she also gets to work as a team from other match officials. It’s the best of both worlds really.”
Mhairi is humble in her personal achievements as a match official, and instead gives praise to those who have come since, including Hollie Davidson.
“Niamh’s heroine is Hollie, it’s not me. She’s her inspiration. There are now countless women all over the world – Sara Cox, Joy Neville – showing just how far we can go as officials. But if Niamh decides to go no further than regional rugby, she’s still done an amazing job.”
So, the final question for Niamh – does she dream of following in her mum’s footsteps all the way to the top of the game?
“It’s hard to say right now where I see myself going,” said Niamh.
“I’m still young and still finding my way as a referee but I’d love to take the next step and see where it takes me. I’ve had so many great opportunities this year to develop, so I’m excited and ready for whatever is next.”