Hollie Davidson was nine years old when the great Jim Fleming, Scottish rugby’s last regular representative at the sharp end of elite refereeing, brought his career to a close.
When the Changleng twins, David and Malcolm, were calling it a day, she was busy forming a girls’ team at her high school on the banks of the River Dee.
And when her mentor and boss, Dave Pearson, was hanging up his whistle, she was a self-confessed terrier scrum-half in the national youth ranks, yapping and snarling and, on occasion, mouthing off at the men in the middle.
Had her shoulder not had the unfortunate knack of dislocating, she might well be part of Shade Munro’s impressive transformation of the Scotland women’s team, rather than the latest in a new clutch of young and ambitious Scottish Rugby referees.
“I was one of those little nines and 10s who gave the ref some gyp,” Davidson laughs. “I did two seasons at Scotland Under-20s, then the summer I graduated to the senior set-up I dislocated my shoulder again the week before I was supposed to win my first cap.
“I saw rugby sevens was an Olympic sport, and decided to give refereeing a go. Injury probably pushed it faster than I’d anticipated, but it’s definitely a way to stay involved in the sport.”
New territory – new challenges
Of Scottish Rugby’s five contracted referees, Davidson, now 24, is the first woman, following counterparts such as England’s Sara Cox, or Amy Perrett of Australia, in packing in the day job, and going full-time.
She cares little for the gender distinction, but hopes her appointment will serve notice to those who struggle to marry the abrasiveness and attrition of the game with any lingering perceptions of what it is to be feminine.
“Male players almost feel a bit like, there’s a woman on the park, they have to be a bit more courteous,” she says.
“I guess it’s good for the game that they’re being courteous, but it should be no different to if it was a guy refereeing.
“Instead of comments being made – ‘oh, it’s a female referee’ you turn up, do the exact same thing as a guy, and leave. There’s no extra limelight on you just because you’re a female.”
The adjustment from the brink of a senior cap to novice arbiter brought unexpected challenges.
Davidson had to recalibrate her rugby senses, learn to be constantly alive to the phase-play raging around her, and attuned to the myriad complexities of the sport’s hefty lawbook.
“It’s a completely different challenge,” the former Aboyne Academy pupil says. “There’s a lot of responsibility on you. It’s very mentally and physically demanding. It definitely, mentally, is more draining than playing.
“Playing half-back, you’re supposed to be on the ball for 80 minutes. But you always have those defaults to go to – whether it’s a move or a kick for territory – but refereeing, in the early part of my career, I was going home after a game and I could have a little nap afterwards, because I was finding it so mentally fatiguing.”
‘I was melting!’
Her break came at the end of the last year, with an invitation to what was, in effect, an unofficial and gruelling trial for the Sevens World Series in the blistering heat of Dubai.
“I put a lot of pressure on myself,” Davidson says of the tournament. “I just wanted to improve my work.
“The tournament’s across three days – tough, tough work. When you go on the Sevens World Series, you do, maximum, three games a day.
“In Dubai, you’re doing about five a day, and then you assistant referee twice straight after. You start about eight in the morning; you don’t finish until nine, half-nine, in about 30 degrees heat.”
World Rugby’s sevens referees manager Paddy O’Brien watched Davidson in action, assessing her performance with the whistle, and her manner with the posse of officials away from the tumult. He liked what he saw.
She was drafted into the sevens roster, following and marshalling some of the world’s best-conditioned female athletes as they traverse the global circuit.
“It’s how you conduct yourself on and off the park – Paddy’s very keen on cementing that team ethos, so if you’re a great referee but you don’t get on with people, he won’t pick you,” Davidson says.
“You have to perform across the three days. They could come and see you on day one and day three, so that athleticism at the elite level is pivotal in ensuring that your performances from day one, two, three are up there. It’s tough work.”
Poachers turned gamekeepers
Scottish Rugby has long been eager to produce a referee worthy of a seat on the governing body’s elite panel.
Mike Adamson, a former Scotland Sevens international, seems the foremost candidate, having adjudicated 10 Pro12 fixtures last season, and is putting in a fine shift at the Junior World Championship in Georgia.
He’s not alone in that regard – more and more frequently, ex-players are being sought for an accelerated route to high-end officiating.
Tim Swinson, the international lock forward, could be the next Scot, as he negotiates his level two course (of four) this summer.
“Where do we find our next top-level referees?” Pearson, who took charge of 29 Tests and is now Scottish Rugby’s high performance referees manager, asks. “There’s still the traditional level one course and through you come.
“But professional players have a lot more knowledge than somebody starting off refereeing the minis at their club. That’s something we have to start targeting.
“We’ve currently got some of our younger referees working with the academies to try and target some of those guys.
“Clearly, they’re not all going to make it as professional players. There’s going to be some fall-off, and it’s about catching some of those guys who don’t quite make the grade.
“We put them through a level one course as part of the academy programme, they get a feel for what refereeing is about, they see Mike, Hollie travelling the world, and they think, rather than playing, is there another way into it?
“Refereeing has to be another route for those guys. You get to see the world blowing a whistle – it’s pretty good.”
‘The full package’
After a summer of sevens in Canada, France, Russia and China, Davidson will return to the domestic game and resume her ascent through amateur men’s rugby.
That means scrolling through match footage on Scottish Rugby’s central hub, examining clips of herself in action, and preparing for the traits and tendencies of the teams she will encounter.
Pearson says: “If you played as one of those inside backs – a decision-maker, let’s call it – and you’ve got the off-field intelligence, and the athleticism, put the whole package together, you’ve got a very good referee.
“Hollie’s got all three.”