RFU referees Nia Parsonage and Andrew Jackson will be burying their heads in the Law books before taking charge of their first Varsity Matches at the Mattioli Woods Welford Road Stadium on Sunday, 4 July.
Neither ever imagined they would still be controlling domestic games in the height of summer, but both feel ‘honoured’ to be given the chance to take charge of some of the most iconic fixtures in the rugby calendar.
And with COVID-19 restrictions in place for community game matches, the Oxford and Cambridge clashes will be like none that has ever gone on before with no scrums and no mauls. “With no scrums or mauls I think we are going to have a lot of running and creative rugby. I normally average between 7-8k in a game when I’m refereeing, but I’m expecting to go well over that on 4 July,” said Jackson.
“It promises to be a feast of running rugby for everyone to enjoy, although with the same highly competitive edge you see every year in the Varsity Match. It has been a pretty strange season without any fans in the ground for the most part.”
“I’ve never refereed at Welford Road in front of fans before, so the fact there will be a limited number allowed into the game will certainly enhance the experience for everyone involved.”
Jackson turned to refereeing at university in 2005 when, as he recalls, “it became abundantly clear that no new talent was on the way after I’d been a very average full back in my school 2nd XV in Loughborough”
He worked his way through the ranks in the Durham Society before being appointed to the first of his 28 Premiership games to date in 2016. “I’m not a full-time referee and by day I’m a health and safety professional working for a chemical company,” explained Jackson, who is ready to welcome a new addition to his family this month with his second child.
“I’ve been around the Premiership for the past four or five seasons. I started with Sale v Saracens and it went pretty well and things have developed from there – I even got a half of Champions Cup rugby when the referee had to come off.
“I still remember sending off Kieron Brookes in front of a full Franklins Gardens crowd when Northampton Saints played Newcastle. That was an interesting experience! “I’ve done five Premiership matches this season and I never thought I’d be refereeing domestic rugby in July. The off-season is getting shorter and shorter, but the Varsity Match is one of the big showpiece events in the rugby calendar and it is an honour to be involved.”
Parsonage has already had a taste of the women’s Varsity Match having been one of the assistant referee’s to Nikki O’Donnell in 2018 at Twickenham. That occasion left its mark on her and she can’t wait to step up into the leading role at Welford Road.
Rugby dominates her life as she works full-time as the Sports Partnership Manager for the legal firm Irwin Mitchell. “I manage the relationship between my company and the RFU. We are the official legal partners to England rugby,” said Parsonage.
“It is a real honour to be given this appointment. When I ran the line in 2018 at Twickenham I remember thinking to myself after the game that wouldn’t it be great to one day be able to referee the match.
“It is quintessential, grass roots amateur rugby. I know the women’s Varsity Match is only just over 30-years-old, but it has followed in the great tradition of the men’s match.”
Although born in England, Parsonage grew up in Canada and that’s where she learned the game and first picked up the whistle. She returned to England to attend university and has stayed ever since. “I used to play at centre in Canada for a team in British Colombia called Capilano. I played in three successive Division 2 cup finals with them, winning the first two, and then found myself being ‘volunteered’ to become a referee.
“That meant I ended up refereeing the same final a few seasons later. My playing career ended due to a car accident and I used refereeing as part of my rehab and to keep in touch with the game. “When I moved back to England from Canada to go to university I used refereeing to connect with people and make new friends. I reached out to the rugby community and they took me in – it is a sport that has a great fellowship.”
As well as refereeing some Allianz Premier15s matches this season, Parsonage has also done some World Rugby 7s. She was also involved in the Women’s Six Nations last year and a attended a couple of England training sessions in the U18 and U20 age groups.
Photo credit: Yorkshire RU Refs (Twitter)