25 Sep 2017
Recently the Final of the South African women's Interprovincial competition was played in East London - Border vs Western Province and the referee appointed to this match - her highest level of appointment so far - was Ashleigh Murray of the Golden Lions Referees' Society.
By Paul Dobson, Moonsport.
She is 22 and already probably South Africa's No.2 women's referee after Aimee Barrett-Theron who is one of the world's top referees.
Aimee has refereed women's Six Nations was at the 2016 Olympic Games as a Sevens Referee and refereed at the Women's World Cup this year. She regularly referees men's age-group Interprovincials.
She says of Ashleigh: "Ashleigh is an incredibly talented young referee with a great law knowledge and a natural skill in managing players. When I first started reffing, I met Ashleigh at the national camp and I was quite intimidated by her knowledge and abilities.
"Despite her age, she was so confident on the field and it inspired me to work as hard as I could to learn the game from a referee's perspective. She's a strong referee who doesn't take nonsense on the field and she's a lovely person off the field. I definitely think the future is bright for this young referee and I wish her all the best!"
Ashleigh started refereeing when still at school - St Martin's, a private co-ed school in Johannesburg's southern suburbs. She and her Dad were watching the school play rugby with her father. kept pestering him for explanations of the laws till he, seeking relief, said: "Why don't you start refereeing?" She did.
At 16, she joined the Golden Lions Referees' Society.
Many top referees have started at school - Jonathan Kaplan, Craig Joubert, Stuart Berry, Steve Walsh, Stuart Dickinson, Ian Rogers, Wayne Barnes, Angus Gardner, all of whom became Test referees.
For two years she ran touch and refereed Under-12 and Under-13 matches. Then after another four years, at 18 years of age and refereeing up to Under-16 school matches, she was invited to the SA Rugby High-Performance centre in Stellenbosch.
Then "two weeks later and a week before my 19th birthday I got invited onto a South African rugby referees panel.” It was a group of 17 women referees to be tested during the year and included Aimee Barrett, Laurentia Fred, Maria Mabote and Le-Ann MacClune, all of whom developed provincial careers in women's refereeing in South Africa.
Early in her career, she realised the need for fitness. She shed weight, watched her diet and started preparing for a working career in the burgeoning fitness industry. For this, she enrolled at the Health & Fitness Professional Academy, founded in South Africa in 1979 in Johannesburg.
It has as its core course a personal trainer course which it crowns with a higher certificate in exercise science. Then there are diplomas for other courses. Ashleigh Murray did the personal trainer course in 2015, then in 2016 the course in sports massage therapy and then, this year, the course in nutrition.
And in that time her refereeing career grew. But let her speak.
"Once appointed to the SA panel I began refereeing the Women's Interprovincial tournament. My first game was Leopards vs Griquas in Potchefstroom. The following week I was appointed to a match between Griquas and Pumas in Nababeep, close to Springbok. This is a game I shall never forget as the bright Namaqualand daisies were on the rugby field.
"In 2015 and 2016 I received higher quality games at my local society as I began refereeing small and medium school's 1st team games. I was also invited to the girls Under-16 and Under-18 national weeks in both years. In 2015, I refereed the Final at the Under-16 week in Oudtshoorn and in 2016 I refereed the Final at the Under-18 week in Kimberley.
"I also refereed the women's Interprovincial B division final at the end of 2016.
"In 2017 I began refereeing clubs in Johannesburg starting with the Under-19s and ending off the club season with a 3rd team semi-final. I was invited to attend the Under-18 girls national week again in Welkom and ended off the season with the Women's Interprovincial A division final."
Of course, Ashleigh is enjoying it. But let her speak.
"I enjoy challenging myself, and every game for me is a challenge in its own way whether is an Under-14 school game or the women's IPT Final. There is always room for improvement and growth.
"Refereeing constantly forces me out of my comfort zone and it's up to me to decide on 'fight or flight'. It's easy to walk away from the game when you're challenged but there are way more rewards when you put the hard work in and see improvements in your game."
It is a career building quickly. As with all successful careers, there are helpers and heroes and highlights.
Let Ashleigh speak.
Helpers: "When I began refereeing Eugene de Villiers was my coach who helped me understand the laws better and find my positioning on the field. He also helped me work on my fitness. You won't make the right calls if you're unfit on the field.
"After Eugene left the Lions, Theuns Janse van Vuuren (Lions) began working on my refereeing. We filmed my games which he then reviewed and gave coaching tips.
"PD van der Merwe has been my coach from the Lions for the past two years, he also works through the videos of my games, he looks for errors and non-decisions in my refereeing and looks at reasons why I made these mistakes or missed the infringements, he then looks at how we will fix it so it doesn't happen in the next game. He also wants me to me to be technically sound on my laws, by continuously testing me and asking questions while we train so that I can get used to making decisions while on the move."
Dad's role: "My dad has always been my biggest supporter and critic. He was the one who jokingly said that I should start refereeing, not knowing what lay ahead of me in the next few years. My dad has done most of my coaching, always being tough on me by pointing out my weaknesses and helping me work on them to improve. He is honest with me when I haven't had the best of games as well as when I have had a good game. Honesty is key to growing as a referee.
"My dad has also taught me to be disciplined. Nothing is going to get handed to me if I don't work for it, but if I work hard with consistency, I will enjoy the rewards."
Heroes: "I don't have a specific role model but I rather take qualities from my fellow referees, everyone is better in their own way with specific traits.
"Nigel Owens's communication on the field is absolutely brilliant.
"Jaco Peyper is so calm on the field no matter how much pressure is on him to make the correct call.
"Aimee Barrett-Theron has been very successful in the past few years but is still so humble when listening and taking advice from other referees.
"Rather than having one role model, I would prefer to always keep learning from many referees as there is not only one way of doing things."
Experience of the final: "The final was one of the toughest games I have refereed. Both teams had such good attitudes in the game, only wanting to perform their best.
"The final was very competitive with a score of 5-5 at half-time and the score being 15-10 to Border when the siren went off. But the game is not over until the final whistle goes, which was after Western Province had scored in the corner to equal the Border score and then converted the try to win the game."
This year it was Ashleigh's goal to officiate in the final of the women's Interprovincial competition. Looking past that, the Sevens are coming up and she knows she needs to keep on performing at her level best in order to be considered to go further.
And further ahead, she hopes to referee at the men's Under-19 provincial matches, and after that, the HSBC Sevens and World Cup for Women beckons.
People are always surprised to hear that she is a rugby referee, but she is not fazed by the comments she gets. Her attitude is simple. "You are not a celebrity. You owe the game. The game doesn't owe you."