Craig Maxwell-Keys: Premiership rugby referee came out as gay via WhatsApp

Maxwell-Keys' first game as a Premiership referee was Newcastle Falcons against Exeter Chiefs
Craig Maxwell-Keys explains a decision to Exeter Chiefs' Jack Yeandle

Professional rugby has continually embraced modern technology - so it's no surprise that Premiership referee Craig Maxwell-Keys took a similar approach towards coming out as gay.

Maxwell-Keys, who has also taken charge of European games, eventually decided the time was right to reveal his sexuality to colleagues at Twickenham as well as his local club, Lichfield RFC.

"You could say it's modern day," said the 29-year-old, speaking to the BBC's LGBT Sports Podcast. "I sent a WhatsApp message at 6am before I was due to go on a family holiday to Greece.

"I then turned the phone off and didn't turn it on again for a good couple of hours. Then after a few too many wines in Greece, I read the messages back.

"It shouldn't have been a surprise, but all the messages were really positive and supportive.

"When I got a contract offer from Twickenham, I hadn't fully accepted my sexuality myself. It was another two years working in rugby that opened my eyes to the fact that everyone is really supportive.

"It's just an extension of my family and my support network, and the guys at Twickenham made it really simple for me to come out. The limiting factor was me and whether I was ready."

Maxwell-Keys drifted towards becoming a match official by chance - he broke his wrist playing for Lichfield as a youngster and, while recovering from the injury, he enrolled on a refereeing course.

Well and truly bitten by the refereeing bug, he took charge at the Staffordshire Under-12 Festival at the age of 17 and worked his way up the ladder to become a full-time referee in 2014.

Of course, Maxwell-Keys is not the only openly gay rugby referee - Nigel Owens, who came out in 2007, is one of the sport's highest-profile officials and has featured at three World Cups.

"I can't sing as well as Nigel can, I certainly can't dance as well as Nigel can and I'm definitely not as funny as Nigel is, so there are a lot of differences!" says Maxwell-Keys.

"When I did come out to our boss at Twickenham, he put me in touch with Nigel and we had a chat, which was really helpful.

"Nigel had some good words of advice and support, which I was really grateful for at the time and still am.

"They made it really clear that you could be a part of pro sport, that you can be true to who you are and still have that life in sport."

Owens came out as gay in 2007
Nigel Owens refereed the 2019 World Cup semi-final between England and New Zealand

As well as joining the Premiership's 16-man pool of referees, Maxwell-Keys has also run the line at the Six Nations and was set to take charge of his first international - Romania against the USA - last season, only for the game to be cancelled.

Now based in Cheltenham, he aims to continue moving up the referees' pecking order - and his experiences since coming out have indicated that sexuality will be no barrier to that.

"From everyone who has taken an interest, they've said "cheers for sharing it" and on we go, and I think that's the liberating thing - rugby is more interested in how good you are," said Maxwell-Keys.

"If you're good enough, you'll get to whatever level you aspire to. That's what matters and not necessarily who you love or your gender or anything like that, it's purely at the top end about 'are you good enough'.

"It's a very competitive group of referees at Twickenham, vying for a limited pool of games. From my perspective, I'm refereeing in Europe, and the priority is to get some higher profile European Cup games.

"From there, the world is my oyster, as they say."