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Uni student with an eye on the ref's whistle

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George Riley George Riley | 12:49 UK time, Thursday, 21 July 2011

When Sarah Bennison graduates from university this week, she does so with one main goal in life - to become a Super League referee.

The 22-year-old leaves Leeds Metropolitan University with more than just a degree in sports development to help her on her way, too. She has already refereed an international fixture and has every confidence of achieving her dream.

And while most of her student mates would have been out enjoying the bright lights of a Friday night last week, Bennison was sat at home with pizza and a film, taking time out to join Steve Parry and myself on 5 live Sport to tell us about her ambitions.

Sarah Bennison

She's never played rugby league, but Bennison's loved the sport since age 11. Photo: PA

Sounding shy and unassuming - or as Parry put it "far too nice to be a referee!" - Bennison was happy to complete yet another interview in a busy fortnight which has seen her profile rise dramatically.

All the more striking about Bennison's story is that she has never played rugby league. She fell in love with the sport as an 11-year-old standing on the Odsal terraces shouting for the Bradford Bulls.

Her rise through the refereeing ranks has been remarkable.

Earlier this month, she made history when she became the first woman ever to take charge of an international match, Norway versus Germany in Lillestrom.

As well as being a real milestone for the sport, it was also a big moment for her on a personal level. She had never gone abroad by herself before.

"It was a very big experience for me, not just doing an international but the experience of actually travelling abroad to do a game, neither of which I'd done before," she says.

"Just waiting in the airport on my own, working out where I was supposed to go for my transfers from the airport and what I was supposed to be doing was a completely nerve-wracking experience."

You wouldn't have thought getting a flight to Europe would have raised too many concerns for someone whose job it is to keep 26 men in check on a rugby pitch but it emphasises what a new experience this is for Bennison.

A Conference referee and Championship touch judge, she was thrown into referee the second half of Workington against Swinton earlier this month after the appointed referee Jamie Leahy was unable to carry on after half-time. It was an opportunity that was quickly followed by the Lillestrom trip.

"I do this because I want to be involved in the sport," she says simply. "I've been immersed in it since I started watching Bradford Bulls and, as I've never really had the urge to try and play it, I thought I'd try and get involved through refereeing."

Has she encountered any obstacles as an aspiring young female referee?

"Not at all," she responds. "The support has been amazing. My friends, family and all the other match officials are backing me and saying 'Go for it!'."

Bennison initially trained to be a football referee but opted for rugby league. Why?

"I'm not sure I could have hacked all the abuse from players," she admits. "Rugby players seem to respect the officials a lot more. I think it's just the way you are taught to play the game and the rules that are in place.

"Rugby officials don't tolerate dissent so the players learn not to do it or they will be punished. It goes unpunished far more in football so the players seem to think they can get away with behaving how they want."

Having written a lot about officials this year and having been sent to train as a football official with the FA, I'm convinced you need a certain something about you to make it as a ref and to want to be one - confidence, thick skin, and maybe a bit of an ego.

What strikes me about Bennison, though, is that she doesn't immediately display any of those attributes and seemed more stressed about travelling alone than refereeing an international fixture.

So what's her secret?

"Body language and communication is key," she says. "My partner, Jay, always tells me to be loud. So I make sure I'm loud. My body language is strong, too. That seems to work for me. You may think I'm nice but I can be a not nice person too!"

Jay doesn't watch Bennison at every match but he does support her when he can.
But does he ever feel the need to jump to his girlfriend's defence if she is getting slagged off by fans around him?

"Sometimes he does," says Bennison. "Once he did have a go back at fans who were giving me verbals during the game. He told me afterwards what he had done and I said 'you can't do that!' so he keeps his cool when he comes to watch me now."

Bennison believes there is room for a female official in rugby league's elite league. Indeed, she even wrote her university dissertation on that very subject.

"Making it as a Super League ref is my ultimate ambition," she says. "Time is on my side so it will all come down to my performance and my fitness levels but I think I can do it. "

Bennison tells me her bosses at the RFL have been very encouraging about her progress. When I ask her if any of them have told her that her goal is achievable, she replies: "No-one has told me it is unachievable".


  • Comment number 1.

    i hope she reaches her goal. she must be an improvement on most of the ref's in super league that are "performing" now. she must have a better knowledge of the rules than that clown jamie childs, who awarded a "try" for catalans v leeds, when momentum on the the sixth tackle had stopped ,he was pushed over the line then a team mate pushed a defender away with the "ref" stood only a yard away.good luck to her .

  • Comment number 2.

    All the best to her, I don't even like rugby league but might just have to take it up now ;)

  • Comment number 3.

    Best of luck Sarah!

    I think it's great that the RFL are encouraging Sarah's progress to a Super League referee. After all why shouldn't a woman referee? I can understand Sarah's appeal in refereeing rugby though as football players are plain hooligans. I hope she inspires more women to take up refereeing for both Union and League.

  • Comment number 4.

    Good luck Sarah - great to see you getting your chance.

  • Comment number 5.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 6.

    As someone who knows her I think she has all the right credentials to make it! I have been on the wrong side of one of her tellings off and she can handle herself good luck Sarah

    Andy x

  • Comment number 7.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 8.

    @zanderbruce: that's exactly the sort of narrow minded bigotry that is all pervading in the game of wendy-ball.

    It doesn't matter what sex/colour/orientation you are: if you can run around a 120 by 70 meter park for 80 minutes and you know the rules that's all that's important.

  • Comment number 9.

    Does she know the offside rule?

    I jest.

  • Comment number 10.

    Zanderbruce, you are way off the mark. Rugby League and Rugby union have cleaned up their act in regard to punching. Players get hefty bans if caught. If you're referring to the Tuilagi incident a few months ago, the touch judge misled the referee with what he said he saw, so only a yellow card was given. Hence the weak 5 week ban he was given. Had the ref seen it himself he would have been sent off and banned for a minimum ten weeks.

    You clearly have reading the nonsense pumped out by tabloids.

  • Comment number 11.

    @Royal_Gooner: the offside rule in RL has been rewritten in the last couple of seasons and now states (I paraphrase): "if the defending players are within 5 meters of the referee at the play of the ball and both touch judges are in la-la land then everything's ok".

  • Comment number 12.

    This is why Rugby League is brilliant. First black captain of the national team, gay players able to come out and women rising to the top of their field. Well done Sarah and stick at it.

  • Comment number 13.

    Good luck to Ms Bennison with her refereeing ambitions. As she knows, she may have to start below Super League, prove her worth and work her way to the top table.

    Hopefully she will not have to put up with too much abuse from the stands – at least as a young women she will be spared a couple of the common phrases but she ought to try and get sponsored by SpecSavers so that the crowd know which opticians to tell her to visit!

  • Comment number 14.

    Good luck to her - makes you proud to be a 13 !!

    Happykoppite, you should have added (re Black players) that RL picked anyone (regardless of colour) for their country long long before RU, who didn't/wouldn't manage that until relatively recently. Ours is a sport to be proud of.

    I suggest though that she gets some ear plugs..

  • Comment number 15.

    Good luck to Sarah Bennison. There is no reason why a woman cannot be a successful rugby league referee and all the best to her as she seeks to fulfill her ambition.

  • Comment number 16.

    i have witnessed sarah referee at amateur level around the west yorkshire area on several occasions, and although i think it would be a great idea for the game to introduce female match officials, they must be upto the grade. Through fair assesment as a neutral fan at games, where i have seen sarah, she is far below the expectations and standards of that for professional fixtures. This should not be seen as a critism though because i do believe with more time and experience at the grassroots of the game she will gain the experience required to make the step up. I just hope sarah holds back a little and doesn't get fast tracked by the rfl for the simple reason she is a lady, because although the positive media this will bring too the game, sarah will ultimately be found out and fall faster than she has rose. But all the best in the long run

  • Comment number 17.

    What a game - proud to be a '13'.

    Oh the football seasons started - no comparison puts it mildly

  • Comment number 18.

    @zanderbruce. Most people don't mind punches being thrown in rugby if its two people going toe to toe - no problem. Nobody likes a cheap shot's about fair play. You give it out, you take it. Not like the crybabies and cheats in soccer who tell their dads if someone stands on their bootlace.

    Of course, that's a generalisation but it doesn't seem to stop you. :)

  • Comment number 19.

    Good luck to her - and #7 is right. There aren't punches thrown on football pitches. They just push each other and fall over like the big jessies they are.

  • Comment number 20.

    Good old @zanderbruce. Another one of these 'more people watch football so it must be better' brigade.

    Punch ups these days are few and far between, but when they do happen, it's dealt with. And the thing that makes our sport proud is that the players will always shake hands afterwards and put it to rest.

    Like Sarah said, we're brought up in rugby league to respect the officials and address them as 'sir'. If the players try to push it, like my beloved Leeds do, they get penalised and ultimately made to work harder on defence.

    But no doubt @zanderbruce, you'd prefer to see people being hacked down from behind, and being spat at. Much more gentlemanly!

  • Comment number 21.

    it's the year 2011 and we stiil haven't go female referees in show piece sport? good on league for dragging sport into the 21st century.

  • Comment number 22.


    Yet another ridiculous over-reaction simply because the person in question doesn't meet the standard media expectation for the role.

    If she can start at the bottom and work her way to being a top ref then she might be as worthy of an article as any of the others, until then stop using her sex simply to garner hits for your blog.


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