Hollie Davidson interview: ‘I’d love to referee a men’s World Cup final’


Barely 15 minutes after blowing her whistle in the women’s Rugby World Cup Sevens final in Cape Town last September, Hollie Davidson jumped in a taxi and headed straight to the airport.

“I did the final, was off the pitch about quarter past nine and was in a taxi at 9.30pm,” Davidson says. “It seems crazy, but I knew I needed to get another 15s game in before flying down to New Zealand for the women’s World Cup. That was my big thing for 2022.”

It was all part of Davidson’s meticulously planned year in which she took charge of three major finals in less than four months – the Commonwealth Games sevens final in Birmingham then the sevens and 15s World Cup finals in South Africa and New Zealand respectively.

“I’m a very competitive person,” she says, as she enjoys rare downtime in a hectic period of appointments in the Under-20s Six Nations and the forthcoming women’s championship. “If you expect that you’re going to be busy then it makes all the hard work much easier because you know where your end points are.”

Perhaps her determined streak stems from the fact her own rugby career was cut cruelly short. Before picking up the whistle, Davidson was a fiery scrum-half for Murrayfield Wanderers and was due to make her Scotland debut aged 19, only for a shoulder injury to rule her out and ultimately end her playing career. Her journey in officiating – after becoming Scotland’s first female professional referee in 2017 – has been one of self-fulfilment.

It was at the World Cup final at Eden Park last November where the 30-year-old faced the biggest call of her career. England had enjoyed a blistering start and were two converted tries to the good when Lydia Thompson clattered into Portia Woodman after 18 minutes, leaving the New Zealand winger unconscious.

With the eyes of more than 42,000 inside the stadium on her – and millions more watching on television – and a tempestuous atmosphere building, Davidson calmly identified the challenge as a red-card offence.

Thompson was sent off and England went on to lose a second successive World Cup final to New Zealand. “My assistant referee, Aurelie Groizeleau, was trying to tell me something but the crowd was so noisy that I couldn’t hear what she was saying,” Davidson recalls. “As a referee, you never want to be sending someone off, never mind in a final. But when it went up on screen, I felt it was quite clear cut as a red card.”

With emotions heightened for both teams, she instinctively knew not to approach Thompson after the match. “I would never want to impose myself on anyone because you don’t know what their thoughts are after those situations,” she says. “Maybe in the future I can catch up with Lydia, but I don’t think straight after the game was the best environment.”

With her growing profile come other consequences, such as online abuse, which is becoming all too common for rugby officials and was highlighted last year when Wayne Barnes received violent threats against his family after taking charge of France versus South Africa. While Davidson has not had vitriol on that scale, she is conscientious about setting boundaries on social media.

“I think some people assume the women’s game is a nicer environment but I would say the fans are exactly the same,” says Davidson, who does not have a Twitter account. “I’ve come off a lot of social media or I’ll make it private after big games. Yeah, you receive abusive comments a lot of the time. There will always be criticism of performance, that’s natural. But when it becomes abusive, and also personally abusive to your friends and family, that’s when there has to be a bit of a light to say, ‘Enough’s enough’.”

On a more positive note, Davidson hopes the example of Barnes officiating in his first Premier 15s match last December can help create a more mixed-gender approach when it comes to appointing referees across the men’s and women’s games. “A male referee’s aspirations might be to go to a women’s World Cup and I don’t think we should be stopping guys from entering that space, as long as females are also getting an opportunity,” she says. “In terms of group situations and group dynamics, I think it’s good to have mixed genders, but not to the detriment of growing our female space as well.”

Davidson’s reputation as a referee is growing

Credit: Getty Images/Hannah Peters

Davidson has already set her next big goal: refereeing a men’s World Cup final. “I would love that, it would be class, but for now it’s about getting more games under the belt – I’ve only done like 10 men’s professional games in my career so far,” smiles Davidson, who became the first woman to take charge of a Test featuring a men’s Six Nations side last summer when Italy played Portugal.

She also broke new ground this year as part of the first all-female officiating team in a men’s European rugby match, when Scarlets took on the Cheetahs in January.

“The more I can referee those teams, it doesn’t actually seem too far in the distance for me to be able to do a men’s World Cup game,” Davidson says.

While this autumn’s World Cup will come too soon, Davidson is sure to tick that one off her bucket list in the years ahead.