Myllypuro in east Helsinki is the unlikely setting for a sports milestone this weekend.
When the Finland men’s rugby national team take on Norway, there will be a female referee in charge.
It’s the first time a woman has ever refereed a competitive international men’s game, and professional referee Alhambra Nievas from Spain is in charge of the whistle.
But that’s not all. Both of the assistant referees will be women – another first in men’s international rugby. Finland’s Emmi Laine and Norway’s Severinee Lescofit take on those roles.
“I understand the attention because it’s the first time in an official competition, not only a friendly, but in an official competition, and it’s the first time a team of three women are refereeing a men’s international” Nievas tells News Now Finland.
“I think it’s a positive thing, and it is something that opens the gate for a new pathway for women referees. But still I think the most important thing for rugby is if one day we don’t talk about whether a female is the referee, that would be a good sign. We are on the right path if we don’t talk about gender, but about the rugby and the referees appointed on merit” she says.
It’s not the first time Alhambra Nievas has had a brush with Finnish rugby. Her boyfriend was a student in Jyväskylä some years ago, and played for Jyväskylä Rugby Club in the Finnish Championship.
And she had also met Finnish referees on international duties.
“I know Emmi Laine, we worked together at [women’s] 7s tournament in Amsterdam in 2013 and 2014, so I have a good friend on the Finnish side” she says.
Alhambra Nievas is a well known figure in international rugby. She played professionally for 11 years in Spain, including three years with the Spanish women’s national team Leonas.
She has since refereed in Spain’s top flight men’s rugby competition; at the final of the women’s 7s at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games; at the annual women’s Six Nations rugby tournament and at the women’s Rugby World Cup.
In 2016, Nievas because the first female match official in a men’s international test when she was assistant referee for USA against Tonga, a few days after being named “Referee of the Year 2016” but World Rugby.
On the touchline today, Finn Emmi Laine will be assistant referee at her third Finnish men’s international match.
“I’m so happy that Alhambra gets this chance because she deserves it and referees at a really high level already” says Laine.
“Historically it’s an important breakthrough for women, but otherwise it’s just one more game for me […] it’s just another day at the office!”
Laine regularly referees Finnish men’s rugby at Championship and Division 1 level, and says there was never any issues with her gender, the players judge her on her performance as a referee.
“I can’t actually remember that I was treated differently than male referees. Also when I was refereeing in London I went there and the guys said you must be first female referee we had, and they were curious. But they had the patience to kick off, and then see how the game is evolving and they notice I am doing okay” she says.
Finnish rugby authorities are treating it as an honour to be chosen as the first competitive game with a female referee appointment.
“I think it’s a great occasion that Rugby Europe have chosen the Finland game to bring in new changes and have a professional female referee officiating the game” says Stephen Whittaker, Technical Director at the Finnish Rugby Union Suomen Rugbyliitto.
“Couple that with the fact that both assistant referees are female, and we have another first in international rugby. Finland might not be making waves in their game play, but are quite proud and please to be involved in groundbreaking initiatives in international rugby” he say.
Although there’s still 80 minutes of rugby to be played in Helsinki, Alhambra Nievas is already looking forward to the next steps of her professional career – and maybe even the men’s 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan.
“I hope this is not only one game, because we will all be disappointed. If it is just one day, it’s not real change. But I think we will see more female referees doing men’s game on the international stage or in European club competitions, and also in the Southern Hemisphere” she says.
“It’s tough to think about the next men’s World Cup. It’s a big competition and we need to not think too far ahead. At the moment I’m not thinking about Japan, because I have to do other things before then. But if I have the opportunity to do it, myself or other colleagues, why not!”
Finland play Norway in a Rugby Europe Conference 2 North match on Saturday 14th October at Myllypuro Urheilukenttä. Kick-off 14:00.