The pioneering journey of history-making rugby referee Sara Cox

From officiating the gold medal match at Tokyo 2020 to becoming the first woman to referee a men's Premiership rugby fixture, Sara Cox has blazed a trail for female officials, and broken through barriers at every stage of her career.

By William Imbo
Picture by 2018 Getty Images

Sara Cox, who officiated the Tokyo 2020 rugby sevens women's rugby final and became the world's first female professional referee, will make history again on Saturday (25 September 2021) when she will become the first woman ever to referee in the English Premiership.

Cox, 31, will take charge as reigning champions Harlequins host their first home game of the 2021/22 season, against Worcester Warriors, in the top division of English men's rugby union.

“I’ve always wanted to cover a Premiership match with some of the best players in the world on the pitch," Cox told England Rugby ahead of the game at the Stoop Stadium in Twickenham. "Now it’s happening and I couldn’t be more grateful for all the opportunities the game of rugby has given me."

Sara Cox: History-maker

Officiating Saturday's match is the latest in a long line of landmark moments for Cox, whose remarkable journey has been filled with accolades and crowning achievements at every stage.

Cox first took up the sport as a youngster in Devon, England, playing for Exeter, Saracens, Cullompton and Plymouth Albion, and had trials for the England U-21 women's team. However in 2017 Cox decided to retire from playing following an injury, and elected to take up refereeing, initially on a part-time basis.

Cox proved to be a skilled ref and quickly rose through the ranks, serving as an assistant referee at the 2014 Women’s Rugby World Cup.

Two years later, Cox became the first female referee to be centrally contracted by the Rugby Football Union (RFU), and the world's first professional female rugby union referee.

Sara Cox
Picture by 2018 Getty Images

Refereeing at the Olympics

In 2016, a few months after her historic appointment (not to mention officiating the Women's Premiership final between Richmond and Saracens), Cox travelled to Brazil, where she worked as a referee for the inaugural Olympic rugby sevens tournament at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.

She would return to the Olympic stage again at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics in 2021, where she was chosen to officiate the women's rugby sevens gold medal match between New Zealand and France (New Zealand claimed the gold medal with a 26-12 win over Les Bleus).

Blazing a trail for women referees

In 2017, Cox became the first female referee to take charge of a National League 1 (the third tier level of domestic men's rugby union competition in England), was chosen by European Professional Club Rugby (EPCR) to officiate in the men's Challenge Cup continental club tournament, and also officiated at the 2017 Women's Rugby World Cup in Ireland.

2018 was another busy year for the pioneering rugby ref, as she made history on two separate occasions by becoming the first woman to referee an RFU Championship men's match (England's second tier), and the first woman to referee a match between two Premiership men's teams when she officiated a Premiership Rugby Cup fixture between Northampton Saints and Wasps.

Two years later, in August 2020, Cox made headlines yet again after becoming the first female assistant referee in a men's Premiership fixture. On Saturday, a little over a year after she patrolled the sidelines in that match between Wasps and Bath, it will be Cox's turn to be the official in the middle for a Premiership contest.

"I will love this opportunity as a first but what I would really love is for women referees to become the norm. With the number now involved, it can only inspire others. I want to grow interest, motivate others, while doing my job, which is to be out there in the middle of a rugby pitch."