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Written by: Brock Smith
Feature Image Photography: Barb Relton
Sitting on a bench in a recently-renovated locker room at University College Dublin, her pre-match routine is the same as it’s always been. She emulates what she’s done hundreds of times before, moving through the same pre-game regimen she’s carried out in dozens of creaky, worn-down dressing rooms across Ontario before reaching this point. Treating the upcoming Women’s Rugby World Cup match just like any other, she puts on her uniform, talks strategy with her team, and begins stretching.
She can hear the roar of the crowd well before she takes to the pitch, and files that memory away - one she promises she’ll cherish once the match is over. Before then, it’s all business.
She puts in her 80 minutes of heart-pounding work, and after the final whistle blows, she leaves the UCD Bowl grinning from ear to ear; she allows herself to begin appreciating the sense of occasion.
After years of hard work and sacrifice, she’s reached the pinnacle of women’s fifteens rugby. For the select few athletes who reach this iconic level within the sport, it’s a moment that’s never forgotten.
Only this Canadian athlete isn’t a player.
Rose LaBreche is a referee. Canada’s lone referee at the tournament, in fact.
Photography: World Rugby
The 28-year-old from Markham, Ont., is her country’s top match official - she’s been named Match Official of the Year by both Rugby Canada and Rugby Ontario for the past two years (2015, 2016) - and her involvement in the Women’s Rugby World Cup is just the latest achievement in her ever-growing list of prestigious international appointments.
During some well-earned downtime in her UCD dorm room - a breather between a full slate of matches, training sessions, and video analysis - LaBreche takes a moment to reflect on her unlikely journey to the World Cup.
“It’s been a whirlwind. I wasn’t expecting this to happen, especially because I only really came onto the international scene in 2015,” she says, shortly before rhyming off an impressive list of appointments she’s racked up over the past two years.
Currently a regular referee on the World Rugby Sevens Series, LaBreche was notably selected to officiate the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio, where again she served as Canada’s sole representative on the match official panel. She’s also officiated at the past two Women’s Six Nations Championships, highlighted by overseeing the match between Italy and Wales in February. Domestically, she regularly officiates top national and provincial fixtures, including Canadian Rugby Championship and McCormick Cup match-ups.
This impressive resumé, one that clearly cements her status as a rising star on World Rugby’s match official scene, has led her to the World Cup.
“I’m really excited and proud to be part of the team here in Ireland. It’s an honour and a privilege to represent Canada on the world stage, just as it was at the Olympics last year. I didn’t realize until someone pointed it out to me, but I’ve had the honour of being the only North American representative, male or female, at both tournaments. It’s been enlightening.”
While serving as the only Canadian referee at the World Cup is a major achievement in its own right, it also comes with its fair share of expectations - many of which are self-imposed.
Photography: Rugby Canada
“I know that just being here, and specifically being the only Canadian here, comes with a certain amount of pressure to perform, because I want to showcase what Canadian referees can do on the international stage.”
With one eye cast on the present, and the other ahead to the future, LaBreche reveals a core element of her drive train - her motivation to be the best match official she can be.
“Strong performances lead to more opportunities on the international stage, and I want to keep representing Canada, and female match officials, at these kind of tournaments for as long as I can.”
LaBreche’s involvement in the World Cup also comes with the inherent stress of balancing her rugby life with a full-time job in Ottawa; in addition to officiating, she works for the federal government as an senior policy analyst in emergency management.
“It’s a little bit of a struggle some days, just making sure that I’m communicating with my boss and other staff.”
That said, LaBreche’s juggling act has been made a little easier knowing she’s earned the full support of her employer while she’s away on international duty.
“Knowing that I have a job to come back to is really exciting, and also just knowing that the government’s support isn’t begrudging support, that it’s actually full support, has given me a platform to chase my rugby dreams. I may be gone from time to time, but when I come back I just pick up right where I’ve left off.”
LaBreche estimates that for 11 months of the year, she spends around 40 hours a week on rugby. Her off-season falls between mid-December and the end of January, and between her domestic and international duties, a weekend rarely goes by where she isn’t on the road.
“I like to joke that I have two full-time jobs, which probably isn’t that far from the truth,” she laughs. “Let’s just look at the last month or two. I was just in Toronto six weekends in a row. I drove back and forth from Ottawa, and when you tack on prep time for the matches, warm-ups, the matches themselves, plus training and review time, it takes up quite a lot of my time.”
“For the first six months of this year, I think I calculated that I was away for a third of the time. I was away for two months, essentially. That’s a lot of time to be away from your normal, day-to-day life, so it’s quite an investment.”
Suffice to say that investment is paying off. Given her rise on the international stage over the past two years, LaBreche has joined a shortlist of Canadian female rugby pioneers that include fellow top-tier match officials Joyce Henry, Karen Lozada and Sherry Trumbull.
“I’ve been so lucky to have these role models ahead of me. Joyce was a trailblazer for women’s refereeing in Canada. She’s done a number of test matches, and she’s been to Women’s Rugby World Cup twice. With both of us living in Ottawa, we go for dinner occasionally, and getting to chat with her and get her insights has been so important for my growth as a match official.”
LaBreche hopes her time at the World Cup will help to inspire young women back home.
Photography: Barb Relton
“Even if one or two young females decide they want to pick up the whistle, I’ll be proud. There are so many fantastic ways to give back to this sport, and I hope that I can help demonstrate that refereeing is a meaningful avenue for women to get involved in the game.”
In the meantime, for someone who never thought going to the World Cup was a possibility, LaBreche honours the promise she made to herself before her first World Cup match - she remembers the roar of the crowd from her tournament opener, and cherishes the opportunity to be a referee.
“For now, I’ll continue to remind myself to breathe and enjoy these three weeks. I’ll let the feeling wash over me. I’m here, and it’s been an unforgettable experience.”