Written by Steve Landells
AUSSIE Sarah Corrigan is one girl not be messed with. Aged just 27 she made history in April by becoming the first woman to referee in a full IRB men’s tournament at the Under-19 World Championships and the Canberra woman has not ruled one day featuring as the first woman to officiate in a men’s senior World Cup.
Such is her standing in the game IRB referees’ manager Paddy O’Brien calls her the best women ref in the world and it is hard not to disagree.
Standing at 5ft 3ins the diminutive Corrigan took up the whistle aged 17 after her parents advised her refereeing may be a safer activity than playing.
Corrigan, who had only played one game of ten-a-side rugby, wisely took notice of their words and it has not been a move she has regretted.
“My dad was a referee for the Australian services and talked me out of it,” she said. “I am only 5ft 3ins and he thought if I played I’d be snapped in half and he said why not try being a referee? I thought yes, I’ll give it a go and I’m really glad with the decision.”
With a naturally confident and assured style she began her rugby officiating life refereeing under-11 games in her native Canberra and rapidly won over their respect. She quickly progressed to the women’s senior game and in 2004 it was suggested she had the ability to make it as the Australian representative at the 2006 Women’s Rugby World Cup.
With a clear and ambitious goal in sight Corrigan adopted a more professional approach and decided to work hard to improve every aspect of her play both technically and physically. She linked up with a sprints coach to work on her speed and fitness and worked alongside 41-times capped Wallaby and former World Cup winning prop Tony Daly.
“I had to really improve my game knowledge and understanding of all facets of the game, particularly my work in the scrums because I have never (apart from one game) played the game before,” insisted Corrigan. “The IRB have a scrum DVD explaining different things and I got Tony to talk me through what was going on.”
With a new-found ability and confidence Corrigan enjoyed an outstanding 2006 Women’s World Cup tournament. She was in charge of the whistle in both the Canada v England semi-final and the third/fourth place match between Canada and France and O’Brien was so impressed he called her up for the Men’s U-19 World Championships in Belfast in April.
“Sarah was the stand out performer by some distance and outshone everyone with her knowledge of the game,” acknowledged O’Brien of her performance in the Women’s World Cup.
Corrigan also fails to be fazed by dealing with 30 alpha males on the rugby pitch and dismisses the challenge.
“To be honest I’ve never had too much of a problem,” said Corrigan. “I’ve certainly never had an incident where I’ve had abuse to my face. Although, when I was refereeing the Chinese Tapei versus Cook Islands game (at the U19 World Championships) one of the players called me love which was a bit patronising. But, to me, it was all about not showing any recognition and ignoring the comment. To be honest comments like that, make me more determined to prove I’m the best referee.”
But Corrigan, who besides her commitment to rugby, is studying a degree in archaeology and earth sciences at university and working as a cinema and sales co-ordinator, has little doubt which gender are more likely to abide by the rules. “Women’s rugby tends to be very textbook,” explained Corrigan. “The men obviously play at a faster pace and the guys tend to push the rules to the limit a lot more.”
The next step for Corrigan is to be accepted on the Australian refereeing academy from where she hopes to be able to take charge of more senior men’s games. But she accepts the possibility of a woman refereeing in the men’s senior World Cup is a distant prospect.
“I think that is still some way off,” she explains. “The game in Australia and New Zealand is so fast, and the referees need to be so fit and need to be very game savvy. I think for a woman referee to officiate at a men’s World Cup final is probably is in the unlikely category rather than the likely category.”
Corrigan is adamant, however, the IRBs “open-minded” approach to women officials mean the prospect of more top female referees is inevitable.
“There is not only me but dozens of other good female refs coming through and I’m sure we’ll see them for many years to come.”