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Neville Prepares For Her Final Match

Joy Neville 22/5/2023

Joy Neville Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Tom Maher

Sometime around mid-afternoon on Sunday at the Stade Jean Bouin, in the heart of the green and leafy 16th arrondissement, referee Joy Neville will blow the final whistle to end the Guinness Women’s Six Nations Round 3 match between France and Italy.

One of the most successful and remarkable on-field rugby careers will come to an end in Paris this weekend.

Throughout her career – first as a player and then as an international referee – Neville has set new standards, pushed boundaries, and shown what it is possible to achieve across the sport.

An exciting new role with World Rugby will see Neville become their Elite Women’s 15s Match Official Head Coach which means she will be able to continue passing on her experience and stay involved in a sport to which she has given so much.

Neville admits she’s relieved that her weekends will now involve less travel, while some Saturday afternoons will involve baking cakes with her young son Alfie, or “power-hosing the patio,” alongside wife Simona.

She certainly won’t be sitting on her couch, blowing her whistle and waving cards at whichever match is on the television.

“I’m excited,” she tells us. “My family are coming to the game, and I get to work with Leo Colgan and Brian MacNeice, who are two good Irish friends who I have worked with for many years, and two good girls on the line [Holly Wood, RFU, and Maria Heitor, POR].

“Why now? Family reasons. I have a two-and-a-half-year-old and being away over 230, 240 days last year means my wife has been totally selfless in supporting us as a family.

“I was away for nearly nine weeks for the Women’s World Cup. They didn’t get to come over and I didn’t get to come home. It’s a massive commitment and it’s definitely been worth it. As a player, when I retired, one of the reasons was to give back to my friends and family and it is the reason why I’m retiring now. It’s the right moment.”


On Sunday, Neville will oversee a clash between a France side who have won two from two as they chase a first Grand Slam since 2018, and an Italian team who are aiming to build on their Round 2 victory against Ireland. After that, an evening of celebration in the French capital awaits.

“There’s no better place than Paris, it’s a special place,” Neville said. “Alfie’s never seen me referee in person, he’s always seen me on TV. It will be great for him to be there.

“I’ve already anticipated that I’m going to be quite emotional, especially during the national anthems, because what it represents is over 20 years of involvement in the game as a player, as a referee, and what I have done and what I’ve achieved.

“It isn’t really just me, it’s the support of my family and friends, especially my wife Simona because she’s been my rock, she’s put in the graft to look after family when I’m away, but more so being that shoulder to lean on when I needed it.

“I think it will be very special for us as a family, and a very proud moment because it hasn’t always been easy. Certainly, there’s been massive learnings from most of the experiences I’ve come across and some wonderful moments, but it hasn’t always been easy, and I want to celebrate every single moment that I’ve had.”


Before becoming a referee Neville enjoyed a successful career as a player. A back-rower, she won 70 Ireland caps, played at the 2006 and 2010 World Cups and one of her last acts was to captain the side to a Six Nations Grand Slam in 2013.

RBS Women's Six Nations Championship, Parabiago, Milan 17/3/2013 Italy Women vs Ireland Women Ireland's Joy Neville, Fiona Coghlan and Lynne Cantwell lift the cup Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan

RBS Women’s Six Nations Championship, Parabiago, Milan 17/3/2013 – Ireland’s Joy Neville, Fiona Coghlan and Lynne Cantwell lift the cup – Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan

When she retired, Neville wasn’t sure what her plans were, but a seed was planted after a call from former Irish test referee David McHugh, who was then the IRFU Referee Manager.

When he phoned back later in the year Neville took her first steps, spurred on by plenty telling her that she’d be doing well to referee in the All-Ireland League (AIL), let alone the heights she eventually reached.

Less than 18 months after starting Neville ticked the AIL box when she oversaw Clontarf versus Cork Constitution. Then four years after stepping down from playing, she took charge of the 2017 Rugby World Cup Final, a 41-32 win for New Zealand over England at a full house in Belfast’s Ravenhill.

“In the first two years, I wouldn’t have even contemplated that the four years to 2017 would have been a possibility,” Neville said.

“I was so lucky that I worked with people who put me in risky situations with me being the first in many situations and environments, knowing that I could sink or swim and that maybe that wouldn’t reflect very well on them. I’m very, very thankful for that.

“To get to a World Cup Final with a different hat on, as a referee, but also to get to work a final on home soil was extra special. I knew I wanted to enjoy myself, but not to the detriment of losing focus, not making accurate decisions, and coming away with massive regrets, and a team that is not happy.”

Joy Neville at the Rugby World Cup 2017

2017 Women’s Rugby World Cup Final, Kingspan Stadium, Belfast 26/8/2017 Referee Joy Neville, New Zealand’s Fiao’o Fa’amausili and England’s Sarah Hunter during the coin toss – Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Bryan Keane


Taking control of the women’s showpiece match showed how effective a referee Neville was and two days after it she received her first full-time contract with the IRFU.

It also earned her the World Rugby Referee of the Year award, and in doing so she followed in the path blazed by Spain’s Alhambra Nievas, a “great friend,” whom she will now work with on the World Rugby Elite Match Officials Panel.

Neville’s star continued to rise. Her first men’s match came at a European Challenge Cup fixture between Bath and Bristol.

Neville was pleased with the feedback from the public on social media, but it hasn’t always been kind to her, and she has since taken herself off several platforms.

She then became the first woman to referee a European club fixture, when she officiated between Bordeaux-Begles and Enisei-STM, and later did the same in the United Rugby Championship (URC) when she returned to Ravenhill to oversee Ulster versus the Southern Kings.

Players shake hands with Joy Neville after the game 9/2/2018

Ulster vs Southern Kings – Players shake hands with Referee Joy Neville after the game – Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Morgan Treacy

Along the way came Neville’s first men’s Test match, a clash between Scandinavian rivals Norway and Denmark. It taught her a useful lesson on being overly focused on the teams to the detriment of her performance.

“Maybe a few years into my career I realised that yeah, you can prepare for teams and players and want to look out for trends, and particular players, but that may cause concerns or problems with your behaviour,” she said.

“However, it’s just as important to work on you. Your own process, on your line of communication and dealing with TMOs. What works well, your style of approach and working with different behaviour and different individuals.

“I loved the referees that when they are questioned in a positive manner, say ‘Yep, I got that wrong’. I totally respected that.

“Understanding this approach may work for this person in that moment, but when the chips are down, that won’t work. Different management strategies are massive in refereeing, and I came away thinking that’s the type of referee I want to be.”


Covid-19 pushed the New Zealand 2021 World Cup back a year, by which time Neville had already set another first, as a female TMO for a men’s Test – the Autumn Cup meeting of Wales and Georgia.

Once the World Cup arrived Neville had become a mother. While Alfie’s arrival meant a major lifestyle change, she and Simona decided it was something to pursue, and she got to work preparing for the tournament.

She wasn’t chosen for another final but took charge of two closely fought matches: England’s 13-7 win over France in the group stage, and New Zealand’s 25-24 victory over France in the semi-final. It was a memorable tournament that showed Neville and those watching how much women’s rugby had developed since she retired.

“One of my goals was to be selected for the Women’s World Cup 2022 and get another World Cup Final,” she said. “I refereed really well, and I was proud that I came back the fittest I’ve ever been.

“Any mother will have doubts around can you get back to that level of fitness, or whether you want to be away. Will you have the mental strength to be away and to get back into international rugby? Get that speed back and have that confidence?

“I played in the 2006 and 2010 World Cups and there’s 200, 300 people watching us, then you move it forward to 2017 and the final is a sellout and there are over 3 million people watching the broadcast on a number of different channels.

“We look at the World Cup in New Zealand and there are over 50,000 people present at the final and moving forward to 2025 in England they are already bidding for the final to be an 80,000 sellout at Twickenham.”


This season Neville achieved another first when she became the first female to be part of the World Rugby Match Official Panel for a men’s World Cup, working as a Television Match Official (TMO) at France 2023.

Joy Neville, Chris Busby, Andrew Brace and Brian MacNeice 22/5/2023

Television match official Joy Neville, assistant referee Chris Busby, referee Andrew Brace and television match official Brian MacNeice are pictured together ahead of the Rugby World Cup in 2023 ©INPHO/Tom Maher

As such she finds it fitting that her final match as a referee will be in Paris, and she also cites Ravenhill, Cardiff’s Principality Stadium, and Munster’s Thomond Park as her favourite venues.

Neville is well aware she has come a long way since she took that phone call from David McHugh, and how being a rugby referee has allowed her to develop professionally and personally.

As such, she is in no doubt what her advice would be to any current player who is considering whether to take up the whistle, or how she would like her refereeing career to be viewed.

“I’d say just give it a go, give it a try,” she said. “Be comfortable being uncomfortable, being out of your depth. You’re not gonna get everything right. We’re gonna make mistakes and it’s okay to make mistakes.

“It’s a massive opportunity. You get to see the world and meet great people. There are so many benefits.

“I’d like to be judged as the person I am. I’d like to be remembered as being fair, hard-working, and always wanting the best for the game.”