The locker-room vibe is similar to most others: athletes put on uniforms, talk about the game plan and warm up to avoid injury.
Only these aren’t players. They’re referees.
At a recent rugby sevens tournament in Vancouver, Rose LaBrèche stretched her hamstrings while other referees rubbed sore legs or ran to loosen up before heading onto the pitch. At some events, there are massages or ice baths between matches to keep refs in top form.
LaBrèche’s rugby playing career ended in 2011, when she suffered her last concussion and decided enough was enough.
“I want to use my brain for other things,” says LaBrèche, who in addition to officiating works for the federal government as an analyst in emergency management.
The 27-year-old from Markham is part of an international panel of refs that travels to women’s sevens events worldwide, and she’s up for a spot in Rio, where the fast-paced seven-a-side version of the sport will make its Olympic debut in August.
The sevens game — which follows the general lines of sprint, tackle and repeat — can take a physical toll on the ref, who has to be on top of all the action, but it seems to be no problem for LaBrèche.
“She is one of the fittest and fastest female referees out there, not just in Canada but in the world,” says Andrew McMaster, Rugby Canada’s manager of high performance match officials.
“She is super-competitive in the gym and, I’ll be honest, she usually beats me,” adds McMaster, who works out with LaBrèche at a CrossFit gym in Ottawa, where she now lives.
Just as an elite player needs to train, so does LaBrèche. To stay on the international panel, she must stay technically strong and pass fitness tests several times a year — from timed sprints to body fat measurements.
Rugby isn’t the only outdoor sport with demanding physical standards for top officials. Soccer, where referees outrun players over a 90-minute game, also has them, for example. Each sport, though, has unique challenges when it comes to the need for speed and stamina along with the ability to make swift and sound judgment calls.
And one often determines the other. Science has shown that mental capacity weakens when the body is tired.
So, it isn’t just a matter of being fit enough to stay with the play — about 1.5 kilometres of running over the course of a standard 14-minute sevens match. LaBrèche has to be so fit that the pace feels easy, which frees up her mind to make the best split-second calls.
Rugby sevens is such a short game that a single bad call can change the outcome. With so much on the line for teams looking to play for Olympic gold, every game matters.
LaBrèche worked matches in Dubai and Sao Paulo and will referee again at Team Canada’s stop in Langford, B.C., on April 16 and 17 as well as the last-chance Olympic qualifier for women in Dublin in June.
Canada’s women have already qualified for Rio and says that, along with winning gold, they want to use the Olympic appearance to help the sport grow at home. LaBrèche has similar ideas. A female Canadian referee in Rio might get more women involved back home, She will find out this weekend if she’s been chosen for the Olympic panel. She’s the only Canadian, female or male, on an international sevens panel.
LaBrèche is the latest in a line of Canadian pioneers including Joyce Henry, Karen Lozada and Sherry Trumbull. Overall, though, women still make up fewer than 20 per cent of Canada’s registered rugby refs.
“It is something that can take you to the limits of your capabilities, both mentally and physically, because it puts quite a huge demand on both,” LaBrèche says of the appeal of refereeing.
The torture she puts her body through to stay fit — interval training, sprints and weightlifting — doesn’t compare to what she often puts her mind through after a match.
“If the game went really well, I feel great,” she says. “But if there are contentious issues, or if I’m unsure I’ve made the right decision, I want to look at the game (tape). You think about it constantly. It’s not something you can drop, at least not for me.”
Olympic inclusion has led to the sevens game — once thought of as little more than a sideshow to 15-a-side rugby — becoming harder and faster for players and, consequently, game officials.
Check out the original article from the Toronto Star: Here