With her wide and inviting smile it is hard to believe this small and slender-built woman takes charge of two teams of rugby players and rules the field with her whistle and decisions.
We met with Ashleigh Murray-Pretorius from Brackenhurst on a windy Saturday morning at Weltmeyer Stables on the Meyer Farm to find out how she became a rugby referee.
Her love for the game started when she joined her dad for a game at the then Ellis Park while still at school.
‘I enjoyed watching the game, but did not know the rules and my dad jokingly said I should try refereeing to help me understand the game. I started the next year and have never looked back,’ she said.
Ashleigh has been on the Women’s SA Rugby panel since 2014 and considers herself lucky to be appointed to various national weeks and games.
‘SA Rugby has given me many opportunities to referee on a bigger scale by sending me to Dubai, Germany and around Africa as well.
‘It has been a long road to get to where I am, with many ups and downs. Being in the high-performance environment there will always be disappointments and victories, but these experiences have made me tougher and stronger as a person.
‘My journey taught me to never give up or stop believing in myself because talent can only get you so far. Hard work and dedication is what helps you achieve your goals.’
One cannot help but ask how she experiences being a female referee in a game of macho men.
‘Most players respect the fact that you are the referee and the final decision lies with you. I also find men are respectful because they know you worked hard to get to this level and your appointment is purely based on merit.’
When asked about her toughest game ever, she said, ‘There is no game that comes to mind as the toughest. Each game brings its own challenges. These could be pressure or the calibre of the game. I always try to remember that each game is important for the players; therefore, I have to be accurate and fair for both teams playing.’
For Ashleigh, the hardest part of being on the field is that she can try and prepare herself as best as she can but that a referee’s ‘practice’ can only be on the field.
‘We put a lot of effort into making sure our picture on the field is correct by watching clips and understanding the laws, but the decisions on the field are the ones that matter. We have to be able to learn and adapt quickly to be accurate.
‘To watch the players perform to the best of their ability brings me the most satisfaction. It has been said that being a referee gives us the best seat in the house.’
‘My most memorable moment on the field is when I was appointed to referee the final at the youth Olympic Games, it was a huge privilege to be involved and to experience that occasion.
‘My most memorable moment off the field involves all the people around me at tournaments. The other referees and management become your family when travelling and although you are technically competing against them, everyone is really supportive of each other and also celebrates when someone else has reached a milestone in their career.’
What the future holds
As somebody who prefers the fast pace of sevens rugby, she is over the moon with her recent reappointment to the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series.
‘My plan is to enjoy the time I get to spend there as well as the experiences.’
When asked if she would choose the same career again, she answered without hesitation that she would not change a thing.
‘Although I have had many disappointments, those hard times have made me into the person I am today. I have gained a lot of life experiences through rugby. I have learnt how to work with people and to control my own emotions, and that is something that I don’t think I would have learned if I had chosen a different path.’
Keeping the balance
She is studying a BA degree in archaeology and anthropology through Unisa and refereeing part-time.
For her it is all about time management and getting what needs to be done as quickly as possible to focus on the next task or game at hand.
Her husband, Quinten, is a police officer with the EMPD Equestrian Unit, and since the pandemic began he has been enforcing the lockdown laws.
‘With him also being a referee, he understands the demands of travelling. We support each other and I have found it is vital to have a partner who supports you in everything you do. We found that in each other.
‘We make time to spend with each other. Luckily, Quinten and I have very similar interests, so it is easy to do.’
About this and that
Ashleigh grew up in the South of Joburg with her two sisters, she being the middle child, with her parents being extremely supportive and hard-working, sacrificing a lot for them.
She met Quinten at Hoërskool Linden when she just started refereeing.
‘He was still on the SA Rugby national panel. I was appointed to run touch for one of his games and that is how we met. Years later he joined our training group and we became friends.
‘We were supposed to get married in August 2020, but when Covid-19 hit all our plans were on hold.’
However, she decided to surprise him and arranged their wedding. An intimate ceremony on her parents’ farm with only immediate family attending.
‘The ceremony was in the veld where our two dogs could also attend. We may not have had our so-called big day, but looking back, there are no regrets because our most important people were there.’
Off the cuff
Ashleigh describes herself as a keen baker, something few people know about her.
‘To the delight of my family and friends, I enjoy baking in my time off, but Quinten and I can only eat so much, so most of the food is given to our family and friends.
‘I also prepared the desserts for our wedding. It was quite funny because the guests ended up arguing who was going to take the leftovers home.’
When it comes to the social side of things, she is ‘definitely an introvert’ who doesn’t like being the centre of attention and describes herself as a humble person. She loves sunshine, enjoys food rather than art and said she can be easily bribed with an ice cream.
‘I dislike people who choose to be ignorant and I am inspired by people who work towards bettering their lives, no matter what their circumstances are.
‘If there is one thing I could do before I die it would be to inspire someone to take a leap of faith and do something they enjoy and reach their full potential.’
Seize the moment
If there is one last message she could give it would be not to wait until tomorrow because nothing is worse than having regrets.
‘Covid-19 has hit us really hard as a family. We have lost very important people in our lives. This is also why we have no regrets about our small wedding because the people we have lost recently were there.
‘Covid has been difficult for most people, and the most important lesson I’ve learned is to appreciate the people in your life while they’re still there. Your
life can change so quickly. Enjoy the small things in life and don’t put anything off until tomorrow because it’s not guaranteed.’
* Text: CARINA VAN DER WALT. Photos: PHALADI KHESA.