Alhambra Nievas is a former international player and rugby referee. Having established a glowing reputation, the 37-year-old reached the pinnacle of her career by officiating Australia v New Zealand Rugby Sevens final at Rio 2016, and is now helping others achieve their dream at Tokyo 2020.
From playing to refereeing
Alhambra Nievas tried many different sports – from football, basketball, volleyball to karate – but it was rugby that interested her the most.
The 37-year-old started playing rugby at university, then at club level, represented her province Andalucía before finally making her international debut for Spain in 2006.
“I played in Spain for almost 10 years. It's the goal of every player to play for your country," she told Tokyo 2020.
However in 2012, Nievas had the opportunity to be part of the game in another way.
A friend encouraged her to help in a rugby school for children, which inspired her to try out refereeing.
“I started refereeing, and [I found] becoming a referee was more challenging. It was hard because playing rugby is the best feeling. You can’t compare it with anything else.”
Nievas split her time between playing and officiating, primarily to improve her knowledge of the rules and laws of the game.
“I chose to referee just to get to know the laws [better], to have better skills to communicate with the referee because I actually was the captain, though [at the time] I was more focussed in my playing career.”
Becoming a professional referee
In 2009, it was decided that Rugby Sevens would make its return to the Olympic programme in time for the Rio 2016 Games.
Nievas had already officiated a few matches at national level, but she was soon invited to referee at the highest level.
It was at this point she decided to stop playing the sport and focus all her attention towards officiating professionally.
“I started thinking, ‘oh, maybe I need to focus on my refereeing career’,” she explained. "As a kid, as a teenager, I always dreamt to be in the Olympics. When I [learned] that the rugby sevens would be the in the Olympic programme - it was my goal. I really wanted to be in the Olympics as a referee.
“I stopped playing and I focussed on my refereeing career. I had some good opportunities here in Spain so I progressed to the top level in the men's game here in Spain. I think this allowed me to develop myself, and to also grow on the international stage.
“I then started receiving opportunities. I think the first event I attended as assistant referee was in 2012 in Dubai Sevens, and then I got more opportunities.
"I started refereeing the [World Rugby Women’s Sevens] in 2014 and everything went pretty well."
It certainly did go well.
As well as being a regular referee on the sevens’ global circuit, Nievas would go on to officiate at the Women’s Six Nations and Women’s Rugby World Cup.
In November 2016, she was appointed as assistant referee for USA v Tonga, and in doing so became the first woman to officiate in a men’s rugby union international.
Australia 24 - 17 New Zealand
Training as hard as athletes
Nievas had successfully made the transition from being a top-flight international to a world-renowned match official, but she found herself “training more, and harder” whilst being a full-time referee.
“I think people need to realise that being a rugby referee, in terms of how you prepare yourself, is pretty similar to a player,” Nievas explains. “You need to prepare physically, mentally and technically. The demands are really high. We are athletes – there is nothing different.”
Rugby sevens is a fast-paced game: seven players, seven-minute halves, and just seconds make decisive decisions that could define results. Referees need to be quick in more ways than one.
“Rugby sevens is very demanding,” Nievas said. “You need to be very fit. You need to be quick. You need to train similar to the players.
“Rugby sevens is progressing really quickly in the women's game. So we [need to] train really hard.”
Whereas an individual athlete might have an off-day or endure a run of poor form, officials must always be at the top of their game.
“As a referee on the field, you are not only representing yourself, but your team - the referee team.
“Being an official is not trying to get anyone out of your way. You are trying to be your best. It is a competition with yourself, to get better, to get there, to be consistent, to match the highest standards, in a high-performance environment to be selected for the Olympics.
“It is crucial to support each other and how to learn from each other. The philosophy is to get better together.”
For Nievas, the key to improving fitness and ability was to work alongside an international-standard coach to help her officiate on the biggest sporting stage of them all – the Olympic Games.
“The key for me was to have a physical coach. That was the key: to be at the same standard that World Rugby or the Olympics demand from us.
“It was something that I really enjoyed. I will not say that it was hard, in a bad way. We were very disciplined.
“As a referee, we were all very conscious that we needed to prepare ourselves as best as we can because we [wanted to play our part] in ensuring that rugby sevens remained in the Olympic programme.
“We had to [ensure there was] nothing controversial, or that rugby received any negative news. We just wanted to play our part to make rugby sevens a success at the Olympics.”
David Rogers/Getty Images
The 2016 Olympic final
All the preparations and experience paid off as Nievas received the honour of officiating the first gold medal match at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, between two of the best teams in the world, Australia and New Zealand, at the Deodoro Stadium.
It also happened to coincide with her birthday.
“I always dreamt to be in the Olympics,” she said. “It was amazing. To referee the final was a big honour. When the Olympic final started, my birthday just started in Spain. It was the best birthday present ever.
“When you get to the final – always – not only in the Olympics, but in the Rugby World Cup or in a World Series event, if you get to the final it’s because of your performance during the tournament.
“I'm proud of how I prepared myself and how I performed during the tournament. All the preparation just before the tournament and in previous years. Every time that I was in an event, the aim – the goal on the horizon – was the Olympics.”
Her strong performances were also recognised by her peers as Nievas became the joint recipient of the World Rugby Referee Award at the World Rugby Awards later that year.
Nievas retired from refereeing in 2018 and is currently the Referee Development Manager for the governing body, World Rugby, with a remit to identify and nurture global refereeing talent for Sevens and 15s.
As a former international and match official, the role is almost natural fit for Nievas who can pass down her extensive experience to a crop of new and emerging talent.
“As a player, especially if you play at the top level, it's a quick transition from playing to refereeing because while you are used to a high-performance environment, your skills, your knowledge – everything – contributes to help fast track [your career].
“We have a couple of examples in our current squad. We have Joy Neville, Julianne Zussman and Selica Winiata – these three are top [former] international players. Winiata won the last Women's Rugby World Cup in Ireland in 2017.”
Nievas’ plan is to ensure that as soon as rugby restarts, officials will be on the field again to prepare for Tokyo 2020.
“Next year (2021) is going to be a big, massive year for rugby. We have the Olympics and we have the Rugby World Cup in New Zealand.
“As referees, we are preparing ourselves as best we can once rugby restarts. We are ready to get on the field to get this experience before these two pinnacle events. We are really excited and we can't wait to be in Tokyo.
“Everyone is wising to be there. And we are preparing ourselves as best [as possible] and to have a great brilliant competition.
“We can't wait.”