Rugby

Referee Benvenuti breaking down barriers

  • Quiet authority: Maria Beatrice Benvenuti, of Italy, speaks to an All Blacks player before refereeing her first match at the World Rugby Classic at North Field on Monday night (Photograph by Akil Simmons)

The thought of dishing out punishment to her brother without reprisals, at least on the pitch, was enough incentive for Maria Beatrice Benvenuti to become a rugby referee.

Aged just 16 when she experienced that eureka moment, Benvenuti promptly enrolled on a referee course in her native city of Rome and was immediately struck with the “rugby virus”.

She made her debut in the women’s Serie A four years later and has since officiated more than 200 national and almost 50 international games.

Somewhat surprisingly, given her rugby-mad family, Benvenuti has never actually played the game; not even with her three younger brothers, who unwittingly inspired her to take up the whistle.

She does, however, consider herself as “the 31st player on the field” and is as passionate about the game as any barrel-chested prop or towering second row she occasionally has to keep in line.

“I met a referee who was retiring — the only one who gave a yellow card to my brother — and I was like, ‘Can I do that, too, can I get involved?’ So that’s what I did,” Benvenuti told The Royal Gazette.

“It was not easy, firstly because I was just 16, a kid, a little girl, taking charge of the game and talking to men who could be my father or grandfather.

“A lot of people were saying to my parents, ‘Come on, she’s a female, why are you pushing her to do that and taking her to the games?’ But now those same people come to me and say, ‘Wow, that’s amazing’. What I try to do is inspire other women and say to children, ‘This is possible, you just have to dream it’.”

In the absence of household names at this year’s World Rugby Classic, Benvenuti has been elevated to a star attraction of sorts, happily chatting to revellers and posing for selfies with her new fans.

She refereed her first match in Bermuda on Monday night, a victory for the Classic All Blacks over USA Classic Eagles, and marvelled at the “amazing atmosphere” at North Field.

“The [organisers] contacted me through the Italian team to ask me whether I wanted to come,” she said.

“I was like, ‘Are you kidding, you’re going to Bermuda?’ They were like, ‘Yeah, just make sure you’re on the flight and come with us to enjoy this great tournament’.”

Slightly built, but quietly authoritative, Benvenuti primarily oversees men’s matches in Italy and admits she has had to develop tools to counter those players who try to intimidate by virtue of their size and her gender.

Communication and respect is key, she says, and believes rugby has evolved into a far more inclusive sport than many would expect.

“People look at my height and say, ‘She’s so small, she’s pretty cute, she’s so young, and they try to test me,” said Benvenuti, who delivered a talk at Bermuda High School on Tuesday. “They tried to do that in this case [in Bermuda], too. You just have to deal with that and impose yourself. If they see you doing good work they stop it and just enjoy the rugby.

“I’m always smiling and try to have conversations with the players because that’s really important. You’re not an authority out there; I’d say you’re the 31st player on the field. They play and I referee, that’s all.”

Not all of Benvenuti’s moments as the “woman in the middle” have been positive, however.

It is almost 12 months since she was violently barged over from behind by a player in an Italian men’s league game.

Benvenuti gave the perpetrator, Bruno Andres Doglioli, a yellow card for the incident and somehow managed to finish the match despite suffering severe whiplash. It is an ugly episode the 24-year-old has tried to forget, although she feels the three-year ban the Argentinian received from the Italian Rugby Federation — its heaviest punishment in the last 20 years — delivered the right message.

“I don’t really like to remember that episode because I think it’s the worst image of rugby,” she said. “I was unlucky [because] that player was crazy and I can’t really explain it. I’m pretty small, just 50 kilos; he could have killed me in that sense.

“Psychologically, it was pretty tough, particularly coming back on the field and thinking that people can just tackle you. Your mind is pretty f*cked up!

“I finished the game; that’s an example of how crazy I am and how much I love the sport.”

Even as she lay in bed recovering from her injury — a disc protrusion in the neck, which she still suffers from — Benvenuti never contemplated quitting refereeing.

“It was tough, but the solidarity I got from all over the world was amazing,” she said. “I even got flowers from the All Blacks and it was very emotional.

“It made me strong, yes, for sure, and showed me that you can have support even when you have these episodes.

“I never thought for any second about quitting. It still gives me chills as I was always thinking, I want to come back, I really want to come back and recover as fast as possible.

“I was thinking about feeling the grass underneath me, hearing the players shouting, and blowing the whistle. That’s what was on my mind. I think that was important because otherwise I would have just been lying in bed and feeling depressed.”

Benvenuti may be an unlikely referee, at least on the face it, but she has gained respect, officiating in the women’s sevens at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, as well as the 2014 Women’s World Cup in France. Eventually she hopes to take charge of a men’s international, and points to Joy Neville, who will become the first woman to referee a European professional club game, as evidence of the sport evolving.

Neville, a former Ireland captain, is also one of two women to referee a men’s international fixture in Europe.

“They’re opening the doors and I’m very happy for that; it shows we’re moving forward,” said Benvenuti, who speaks seven languages and is studying in English for an international master’s degree in health and physical activity.

“It’s cool because we’re a little group and it’s about us all making small steps to make [rugby] grow up.

“I think pretty soon we will arrive and put females in Test matches in big male games.”

Hopefully then Benvenuti will feel the grass underneath her and hear the players shout, while blowing her whistle at the greatest venues in rugby.