JOHANNESBURG – Not too many South African rugby fans will know the name Aimee Barrett-Theron.
They should though, and she has nothing to do with any of the famous Barrett brothers in New Zealand – she is this country’s leading women’s referee and she is breaking ground all the time.
And on Friday in Welkom, Barrett-Theron will again make history when she handles the SA Rugby Under-20 Championship final between the Griffons and Limpopo Blue Bulls, becoming the first female to referee a national age-group final.
The Cape Town-based biokineticist’s rise through the domestic and international referee ranks has seen her become the first female referee to be included on SA Rugby’s B panel, take charge of an Under-18 Craven Week match, officiate at the Women’s World Cup in Ireland, the Rio Olympics and on the World Rugby Women’s Sevens circuit, among other achievements in the last two seasons.
She has also officiated in the Varsity Shield.
She said being given the honour of handling a national final is a big step forward for women’s refereeing in SA. “It’s a big highlight for me, it’s ground-breaking,” she said.
“I’ve been privileged enough to take charge of a few matches at the Women’s World Cup and so on, and also the Craven Week, which was incredible... seeing the boys just want to play and keep ball-in-hand, but this match will be very special for me.
“It shows we are making progress in the game. And well done to SA Rugby and World Rugby, who are always looking to give women opportunities in the game.
“There is an exceptional group of referees that could have been appointed to take charge of Friday’s match, so I am delighted that SA Rugby has faith in me to do the honours.”
Barrett-Theron’s passion for rugby started years ago while she was growing up in a sports-loving home in Durban.
“Saturday afternoons were about watching rugby on television, and I fell in love with the game,” she said.
“It progressed from there. I started playing some touch rugby and then I hit a ceiling. Fortunately my sports co-ordinator at school suggested I get involved in Sevens, which I did, and before I knew it, I was in the national women’s Sevens team and my career took off.”
Barrett-Theron played in the backline, and was comfortable at fullback, centre and flyhalf. She represented the SA women’s team in touch rugby, Sevens, Under-20 level and senior level.
“I suppose I’m like so many other South Africans... I love my rugby. I tried other sports, but they never did much for me; rugby offers so much more,” she said.
After six years of playing the game, Barrett-Theron swapped her mouth guard for a whistle in 2014.
“I wanted to stay involved in the game and give something back. Now I just play a bit of social touch, but I’m focused on the refereeing and train six days a week; that’s my new path now,” Barrett-Theron said.
So what’s it like being a female referee in a very male-dominated world, especially when it comes to handling men’s matches, like the one she will officiate in Welkom on Friday?
“I knew what I was getting myself into, and that was crucial in the beginning,” Barrett-Theron said. “It can and has been difficult at times, but I’ve always embraced the challenges, and in Cape Town, people have gotten to know me and respect what I do.
“When I travel outside of the Cape I get a few looks, but I just laugh it off. The key thing is to do my job properly and to referee according to the law. If I do what I must, then no one can say a thing.
“I do feel though, on the whole, there is a general atmosphere of negativity around refereeing, and I’d like to see that change.
“We’re rendering a service and never go out to ruin a game or get things wrong, but we’re humans and there will be mistakes.
“We’re never going to get all the calls 100 percent correct. It would also help if the fans knew the laws a bit better.”
Barrett-Theron, though, added she gets tremendous support from SA Rugby and her fellow referees.
“I’ve built some great relationships, and the help and advice I get from the likes of Craig Joubert, Jaco Peyper, Rasta Rashivenge, Ben Crous and so on is wonderful. They’re all so supportive and that’s great,” Barrett-Theron said.
And what does she like most about rugby? “I love seeing great counter-attacking rugby. There are times in a game when I can get caught ball-watching,” Barrett-Theron laughs.
“Things can become so exciting at times that you stop and watch what’s going on, take it in and then you realise, ‘Wow, I’m actually a part of this’.
“That is an incredible feeling, but then before you know it, you’re focused on your job again. I really just feel privileged to be part of this wonderful game.”