With the women's game fast-developing, Planet Rugby catches up with hotshot referee Amy Perrett ahead of her Test match debut.
Women's rugby is on the rise. Participation figures for the fairer sex continue to grow across the UK - the RFU will tell you nearly 14,000 women and girls are registered to clubs in England - while the inclusion of the abbreviated Sevens format in the 2016 Olympics brought with it a drastic upturn in the quality and interest in the global female game.
Sky Sports this week put pen to paper on a lucrative broadcast deal to show the Women's World Cup later this year. And a fortnight ago, 15,000 people eschewed the opportunity for an early post-match pint or three to hang around at Twickenham after England had edged Ireland to watch both sides' female counterparts do battle. They didn't leave disappointed either, as England Women won an entertaining clash 17-10.
The Women's Six Nations has traditionally proved a popular sideshow to the main event, but Test matches south of the Equator are not so fashionable, nor are they as easy to come by. Perhaps, then, it is surprising to note that one female refereeing's hottest prospects hails from the sun-kissed shores of Sydney.
Eminently likeable with a nervous laugh and bubbly personality, Amy Perrett does not immediately come across as a woman made for the testy rigors of elite officiating. Taking charge of thirty players who often presume their own knowledge of the laws is superior to those with the whistle is an unenviable task; all the more so when live on television, with your every word broadcast over a linked-up microphone.
As we meet over a coffee in the bar/lounge of her city centre hotel in Edinburgh, Perrett brings with her a laptop complete with footage of some of her recent matches. She is poised to make her Test debut as Scotland take on France this Sunday, a day after the men square up at Murrayfield.
A minute or two into watching her referee the final of the Atlanta stage of the thriving Women's Sevens World Series between Canada and New Zealand, it's clear the 24-year-old is made for the job. The softly-spoken tones my Dictaphone strained to pick up over the coffee table become audibly harder and authoritative. She's measured but decisive, keeping pace with the furious end-to-end tempo of elite Sevens.
"It's a very different type of rugby up here," she acknowledges with a grin.
"I'm really excited for my debut on Sunday, but as we're getting towards it I'm becoming a little more nervous. I don't want to stuff anything up!
"I've been trying to watch a bit of video, but it's not something I normally do at home. I try to go into games with an open mind and without any preconceived ideas about players."
Perrett aside, the most striking thing about the Sevens clips was the skill level. These girls can play. The running lines, the handling, the offloading, the awareness; all are top-drawer. The tackles are not for the fainthearted either.
As a Scot, I first attended Murrayfield aged six in 2000; the fourteen years since have largely made for grim viewing. As I watched a thirty-second snippet where first the Canadians shifted the ball impeccably along their line, sweeping their way downfield before possession was turned over, and their Kiwi counterparts smartly exploited an overlap to run in a score from 80 metres - I couldn't help thinking these ladies could teach Scott Johnson's lot a thing or two.
Perhaps I shouldn't sound so surprised, but the fact is that we are often subconsciously ignorant of the women's game. We tend to undervalue and underestimate the quality on show, placing it far below even the lowest profile of the men's fixtures. The reality is that with the fresh impetus of Olympic inclusion, it is developing at a rapid rate.
"You can see the difference in quality from a few years ago," confirms Perrett.
"In the past few years I refereed a couple of IRB sanctioned tournaments in Sevens before we had a World Series (in 2012). From then to now, the skill level of the players has increased so much, and there's still so much room for these girls to improve and for us to improve as a sport.
"So many more opportunities are available because it is an Olympic sport; people are putting more money into it. Even with our Sevens girls back home, the progress they made in twelve months after being contracted by the ARU is huge. Suddenly they were full-time athletes, not part-time players who had jobs to hold down. The difference was incredible."
Perrett's own rise to prominence is a simple matter too, turning to refereeing when protocols curtailed her participation in the boys' training aged 14. It was not, however, without its challenges.
Australia is not a nation known for its progressiveness, and as an 18-year-old taking charge of her first handful of senior men's games, the weekly abuse from the touchlines almost grew too much to bear.
Veteran male coaches were frequently less than enthused by the sight of a teenage official, but a female one to boot? The horror!
"I started at 14 when I couldn't play rugby with the boys anymore," states Perrett.
"I've got a twin brother so we used to play together. I picked up the whistle once I couldn't play and I had a really good club at home in Epping Rams who helped me develop. It also meant Mum didn't have to drive us all over the place to different sports on the weekend.
"I refereed juniors for about five years, then I began to get a few more representative games and opportunities, and I thought, "Maybe I'm alright at this, maybe I can go a bit further". Then I moved up to senior rugby and in the first year I almost gave up; it was a horrible experience.
"A lot of it was old-school coaches, seeing an 18-year-old woman official running out on matchday. One game in particular, some stupid, obnoxious coach got stuck into me the whole game and for a while afterwards. Fortunately I'd grown up with a lot of the players on the opposing team who stuck up for me. My first referee coach, Dick Byers, encouraged me a lot more, and I got a bit more protection from the Union after that.
"It's only been the last four years that I've really been serious about going somewhere with refereeing, especially since it became an Olympic sport. That became my new goal."
Perrett is now a regular on the Sevens circuit; that makes jetting off to Dubai, the USA, China and several other exotic locations frequent events. Let's be honest, it doesn't sound like a bad gig. But it's worth remembering that while the Steve Walshes, Chris Pollocks and Romain Poites of this world can take home over £70,000 a year, their female equivalents are paid sporadically, and must hold down a day job amid a nomadic lifestyle. Perret herself holds a nursing degree, and works as a carer for disabled and elderly patients back in Sydney.
Despite the pressures of home life, and a wedding timetabled for the end of 2014, this year's World Cup in Paris is looming largest on the Australian's calendar. Sunday's Test may be her only opportunity to showcase her talents in the shop window ahead of the officials selection.
"Balancing it all is a bit of a struggle," admits Perrett.
"I'm meant to be getting married at the end of the year, and we're saving for a house; it's a bit tough. You take a lot of time off work for your refereeing, and it's always unpaid leave. It gets a bit stressful, but we're managing alright.
"Doing a Test match like this, you arrive on your own and you're in a strange city, it can get a bit lonely. But during the World Series you're with your officials team the whole team, you feel like part of a team; it's really nice.
"But in the men's game, everyone wants to reach the top of the fifteens ladder - the women's is similar. With the World Cup coming up, it's a good opportunity to try and get there.
"This is my one chance to show what I've got on the international stage."
By Jamie Lyall