Continuing on her fast-progressing career as a match official, Leah Berard will travel to France this week as one of the eight referees selected for the IRB Women’s Rugby World Cup 2014.
Berard, who was the referee in the 2013 IRB Women’s World Cup Sevens Final in Moscow, Russia, officiated her first international test match last summer when the Women’s Eagles hosted France in a three-match series in southern California, just seven years after her first blown whistle.
Though she began her international refereeing career on the IRB HSBC Women’s Sevens World Series circuit in 2011, Berard’s climb through both the sevens and XVs ranks has seen her reach the pinnacle of women’s test rugby. She also took charge of two 2014 RBS Women’s Six Nations matches earlier this spring.
“Continuous hard work developing the skills and performance got me on the IRB radar and helped me acclimate pretty quickly,” Berard said. “A lot of the refs from the sevens you’ll see in fifteens, and with the women’s pool being smaller I think it’s easier to go through that pathway – getting your foot in the door through sevens and then 15s. It could be timing, as well.”
Although she has enjoyed high-level appointments in the women’s game, Berard knows the quality of play in men’s rugby around the world will only help her and her colleagues to grow as match officials.
“I definitely think that, for women referees to get better, they need to ref a lot of men’s games,” she said. “That’s why in the U.S. I ref more men’s games than women’s games and my goal is to ref men internationally.”
While Berard has broken into the top tier of women match officials for world rugby, she may not get the opportunity to officiate at the IRB Rugby World Cup next year or the men’s tournament at the upcoming Rio 2016 Olympic Summer Games.
“In the World Cup or Olympics, you’re going to just see women referee women and men refereeing men, but I hope in the future to break that tradition,” Berard said. “What I can control is my preparation and performance and hope that it will continue to be recognized at the top levels.
“This is the first year of the Women’s World Cup that they’re having all women match official appointments, as there have always been men in the past. It shows great progress for women, showing that women refereeing is growing and improving. Women referees are also more accepted in the men’s game, especially in the USA where we probably have the greatest number of women referees in the world.
“I think it’s nice when you can get women to do the women’s games, men do the men’s games, but I also think there’s a fine line because the players deserve the best referees, too. I think there’s a bit more separation between the players’ and refs’ abilities for women than there are with the men.”
The Don Morrison Scholarship, funded through USA Rugby Trust and various donor contributions, has given four young referees the opportunity to learn and train with referees in New Zealand and South Africa in the past 18 months. For those referees, officiating matches in rugby-mad countries will only help to speed up the learning process.
Berard pointed to Australia, where women’s rugby has all but stopped on the 15s side since the 2010 World Cup.
“I definitely think refereeing abroad is great for everybody,” she said. “There are differences everywhere – different challenges, language barriers, and so forth. I think it’s a great idea, and not having professional rugby we have more challenges in developing top men’s teams, though we have a pretty high standard of women’s rugby.”
“I feel like, especially in southern hemisphere countries, the women that are refereeing are mostly doing men’s games, and that’s at a higher level than we have here. They don’t have many [women’s] club teams down there, so the women referees are just progressing through the ranks in all-men’s games.”
Berard is coming off of a knee surgery, but is fully fit and raring to go for the World Cup having watched film on each nation competing in the tournament. The problem for a referee, however, is watching the sport can never be the same once he or she picks up the whistle.
“All I’ve been able to do is watch video and to keep myself in that frame of mind, and using it for visualization, and looking at teams and trends gearing up to the World Cup,” Berard said. “I try to watch what they’re doing but it always comes back to the referees.”
“Trust me, I wish one of these days I could just enjoy a game and not have to sit there and worry about what the referee is doing!”
The Women’s Rugby World Cup kicks off Friday, Aug. 1, in Marcoussis, where Berard will officiate the Pool C match between Australia and South Africa. Only time will tell where her career will take her in the future.