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Rugby history: First female referee presides over international match in Helsinki

On Saturday, after 146 long years, rugby history was made in Helsinki when Spaniard Alhambra Nievas became the first woman to ever referee an international men’s game, as she took charge of the Rugby Europe Conference 2 North encounter between Finland and Norway. In another first, Nievas was assisted by Emmi Laine of Finland and Severine Lescoffit of Norway - making the trio the first all-female refereeing team to officiate at a men’s international game.

Alhambra Nievas became the first female to referee a men's rugby international in Helsinki on Saturday.
Alhambra Nievas became the first female to referee a men's rugby international in Helsinki on Saturday. Image: Yle News / Ronan Browne

Prior to the game, Nievas told Yle News that the historical weight of the occasion would not have any impact on her.

“I am very calm because for me it’s just another game of rugby. I’ve heard that the Nordic (club) teams are used to being refereed by a woman, and they are very respectful. The Nordic culture is more equal in its mindset. So this is a positive.”

However, she does recognise the importance of putting in a good performance.  

“I know I'm responsible for opening the door for other colleagues. If this doesn’t go well, that door can close.”

Finnish native Emmi Laine was especially pleased that Helsinki would be the location for this landmark occasion.

“Finland is a small country in rugby, but despite that we and the other team Norway, from the northern countries, we can give this example. I am very proud this is happening in Finland.”

Alhambra Nievas became the first female to referee a men's rugby international in Helsinki on Saturday.
Alhambra Nievas became the first female to referee a men's rugby international in Helsinki on Saturday. Image: Yle News / Ronan Browne

Laine is also hopeful that this can set a precedent for how international referees are chosen in the future.

“I think the next thing is that this is not a big deal any more. That it’s normal. That referees will be selected on their skills and abilities, and not based on their gender.”

Finland just discovering rugby

The appointment of Nievas, Laine and Lescoffit to officiate at this game has brought some very welcome attention to Finnish rugby. The sport is still largely unknown in Finland despite some modest growth in recent years, as Finnish team captain Thomas Finell explained:

“Over the past 10 years there has been a lot of new clubs established and a lot of new young players coming through, so the level of Finnish players in teams has grown. But still the clubs and all the players need to bring more people in and get more visibility for the game in Finland.”

Norway began the game stronger and were rewarded for their efforts when Finland conceded a penalty deep inside their own half, which was converted to put Norway into a 3-0 lead. Finland however came storming back and scored a try through Mika Takala to take a 5-3 lead, and were unlucky not to extend that lead when Jussi Viljanen’s conversion kick hit the post.

Norway then scored a try but again Finland responded, with Eetu Lahtivuori crossing the try-line just before half-time. Viljanen’s conversion was successful this time to give Finland a 12-8 half-time lead. The second half was tight and low-scoring, but Viljanen added a penalty to make the score 15-8, a lead which Finland held onto until Nievas blew the full time whistle. 

After the game Nievas was pleased with how the game, and the occasion, went:

“I really enjoyed it. It was a tight game, which is always a challenge because you need to be really focused. But we are proving that there is nothing different, if we referee as women. I think people in other countries are now starting to realise that they need to open this door for us.”

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