Aimee joined refereeing as a former South African rugby union player. Fast tracked through the ranks, she quickly rose to the top of the game both domestically in South Africa and internationally. The experts at ACME Whistles were able to grab an exclusive interview with Aimee ahead of the Lions tour to get to know the referee behind the whistle.
Name: Aimee Barrett-Theron
Age: 34, in fact it was my birthday not that long ago!
Height: 1.7 metres
What do you do to keep fit?
We have a pretty hectic six days a week training programme including a good bit of work in the gym focussing on strength-based workouts, mostly to reduce the risk of getting injured, and on the field speed training tailored to what we’d be doing in a game.
We normally cover around 7-8 kilometres in a match, so we want to do that in intervals, speedwork, and agility drills to make it as specific as we can.
It’s amazing how fit you have to be to referee, so lots of hard work behind the scenes to make sure that 80 minutes goes well.
I was born in Cape Town but I grew up in Durban. I’m now back in Cape Town and I love it.
What’s your first memory of rugby?
Being South African, I would have to say the 95 World Cup. A huge moment in South African rugby history not just for the trophy on the field but for the country as a whole.
How many years have you been refereeing?
I started refereeing in 2014 so about 7 years.
Do you know how many games you have refereed?
I haven’t tallied them up, but I know I’ve done 20 international tests and as for the rest it must be hundreds. I’ve been there pretty much every weekend for as many years as I’ve been reffing – so yeah, it’s been busy.
Can you remember your first game as a referee?
Absolutely. It was a barefoot under 13 game in the middle of the communities. I don’t think I had a proper referee top I was just wearing one of my old playing jerseys. I thought I knew the game as a player but even at under 13 level there were moments that made you realise how much more there is to the game.
I remember I got assessed for my first game, and when we’d finished I walked up to the stands and there was an assessor. We had a bit of a chat and I just said to him halfway through “this is my first game so we can we just simplify it a little bit” – and he closed his book and he said “well that was magic good luck for the rest of the season”. I took that as a pretty good sign!
When did you realise that refereeing was going to be a major part of your life?
They pretty much threw me in at the deep end as I was fast tracked as a national player. I remember refereeing my first provincial game after about three months. It was a pretty steep learning curve which was really daunting at the time.
How do you feel about being fast tracked?
I thought it was an incredible opportunity, but it was tough at first. I think my knowledge of the game as a player gave me a great grounding, but there is so much more to it as a ref.
People kept pushing me forwards to the next level of games, before I felt ready, but they had faith in me. It’s great to get that backing and it took a little while for my confidence to catch up, but it’s a privilege to have done a lot of firsts.
What about your first step up to international level?
It was at the end of 2016 when I got appointed to the Fiji v Hong Kong game. Two really interesting nations. It was a great opportunity to travel over to Hong Kong where they played on an artificial turf which was also new to me. Pulling on the world rugby jersey and running out onto the pitch for the anthems – that gave me as much of a buzz as the game itself!
I was then fast tracked again into the Six Nations for Ireland v Wales, and then straight into the Women’s World Cup in the June/ July the same year. I refereed the World Cup opener England v Spain and with England the previous champions it was amazing to have come full circle. I was lucky enough to play in the 2010 World Cup and then to ref the 2017 World Cup. Refereeing gave me a whole different appreciation and understanding of the game.
Over that time I also got to see the growth of women’s rugby. Obviously we were incredible in 2010 😉 but to see the changes on and off the fields by 2017 – the growth was massive an it was just incredible to be a part of.
Who is your sporting hero?
Oh, that’s a great question. There are so many. I mean obviously South African rugby players Jean De Villiers and Patrick Lambie – you know just those game makers and try scoring machines. I don’t want to go back too far, but also people like Percy Montgomery – those African rugby heroes I used to watch every weekend.
Also, I’d have to say someone like Caster Semenya, as much as there’s a bit of controversy around her, I think she’s just an incredible athlete.Embed from Getty Images
What’s your whistle of choice?
I’m a big time ACME Thunderer fan, although I prefer the plastic whistle as opposed to metal one.
What are the biggest moments of your career?
It would have to be the Rio Olympics. When I was about 12 at home watching the Sydney Olympics, I told my mum “I’m going to be in the Olympics one day” and being able to realise that dream was just an incredible moment. Obviously, I thought I would be playing, but reffing brings a whole different challenge and it was just an incredible atmosphere.
Who inspired you to pick up the whistle?
During my playing career there were a handful of people that asked if I’d thought about reffing, but at that stage I was very much a player and very happy with where I was.
Over my refereeing journey there’s been so many people who’ve helped and inspired me that I wouldn’t want to leave any out.
I do, however, remember seeing Amy Perrett from Australia in the 2014 women’s World Cup final and I said to myself “wow I would love to get even more involved to see how far I can go as a referee.”
If you had to pick one area of the game that you thought is the hardest to referee what would that be?
Being a full back as a player, I think the scrum and the maul are interesting phases of play to referee. I just have full respect for the players who put their bodies on the line in those situations. There’s been a lot of hard work behind the scenes trying to understand the tactics of it and unless you in the front row, I don’t think you ever 100% sure of everything that’s going on.
What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever seen on a rugby pitch?
The strangest thing I’ve ever heard is when I got a marriage proposal! The nature of the two teams meant we really just had a good a good laugh about it all. I was engaged at the time and I just kind of turn around and said “sorry, maybe check with the next referee”.
Who’s the best player you’ve ever refereed?
There really are so many. I think Emily Scarratt stands out for me just an incredible player with an incredible boot. If I were playing, she would jump right over me and score many tries – I’m pretty sure she did when I was playing!Embed from Getty Images
What about the toughest player you’ve ever refereed?
I think Claire Molloy from Ireland is just an absolute beast when it comes to turning over the ball.
You’re going to a desert island what three things would you take with you?
I’d love to say my ACME Thunderer whistle, well actually that would help in a in a safety situation! OK, the three things … I’d take my wife, some chocolate and my running shoes.
Do you have any hidden talents?
I’m pretty mobile with my eyebrows and people make me do the Mexican wave – but I’m a little bit out of practise. Other than that, I can consume an incredible amount of chocolate.
If you had a dinner party who would be your dream dinner party guests?
I think Nelson Mandela would have to be at the table. One of the lines that’s always stick with me is “sport has the power to change the world” and that’s very much something I live by and something that’s inspired me. I think it might have to then be good family and friends.Embed from Getty Images
What would you like to do after rugby?
So, I think I would love to stay involved in rugby and at the moment I am already helping coach. At the same time and qualified by kineticist, so I work with patients on injury rehabilitation. I do spend a couple of days a week at my practice seeing patients and I’d love to expand that.
If you could pick two teams any two teams in the world to referee that would be your dream game?
It’s got to be the ultimate battle of England v New Zealand. They’ve seen each other in quite a few finals and as much as there’s a couple of teams biting on the heels, they are still the two teams at the moment that are pushing elite and professional women’s rugby forward.
Do you have any pre-game rituals?
I’m generally a very ‘routine’ led person, but the nature of reffing, a strict routine can add more stress as every venue, match, change room is different. So my routine now is to not have a routine and just go and enjoy it. I like playing a little bit of music in the change rooms, but it varies week-to-week as well.
Are you the first of your family to referee?
My dad was quite sporty but yeah as far as actually picking up the whistle I’m the first one.
For more information on refereeing and to get yourself started, visit www.acmewhistles.co.uk