As she goes through her paces at the far corner of the Nakuru Athletics Club pitch, she may be mistaken for a club member working out.
But as you approach her, you notice the type of workout is more intense – lots of lifts, and short explosive runs, not unlike those of an elite athlete.
I caught up with Noreen Liyosi, the first woman to become a World Rugby certified rugby referee in Nakuru. The other female referee from Nakuru County is Beryl Akinyi.
Liyosi has taken what appears to be a lonely path of refereeing in the rugby-mad town which is considered the second home of the game in Kenya after Nairobi.
“The suspension of sporting activities has not changed my training scheduled. I must remain fit anytime the suspension may be lifted and I don’t want to be caught flat-footed. Lockdown is not going to be a disappointment to me,” she said.
“I want to excel in refereeing and eradicate the misconception in some quarters that rugby is a man’s game. I want to showcase that women can also be part of a high-performance refereeing,” she said.
“I want young girls to be aware that this is something they can do as a professional career. It is not just for the men.”
She says many women are capable of becoming rugby officials and just need to be made aware of the opportunities.
Liyosi started out as a player and never thought of becoming a referee.
The switch to officiating started after she dislocated her ankle playing for Nakuru Top Fry Ladies in a 2018/2019 league match.
“After the injury, I considered a career change. I decided I will go for a refereeing course to stay in this game that I loved,” she says.
She started training under a veteran rugby administrator in Nakuru, Lameck Ongati.
“I attended World Rugby Level One training in 2017, and the following year qualified to Level Two and I aim to attain Level Three,” says the 30-year-old Liyosi who is also a primary school teacher at New Life International School in Nakuru Town.
“My dream is to be a member of the World Rugby International Referees Panel and Africa Rugby. I’ll keep striving and pushing for that,” says Liyosi, who is still single but dating.
“One thing that draws me to the game is how complex it can be and also how simple it can be. My target is to ref international arena.”
She says her interest in the game started when she was still a college student at Kamagambo Adventist Teachers Training College in Kisii County.
“I started playing at college as a flanker and centre under coach Felix Oloo who is now the Lioness and Nakuru RFC head coach,” says Liyosi. She guided her college team to the national title in Machakos in 2011.
She is the founder and pioneer captain of Top Fry Nakuru Ladies that came into being in 2016.
Her greatest achievement was guiding Nakuru Ladies to lift the 2018 national women’s league crown.
Liyosi blew her first whistle during the Eric Shirley match between Nakuru and Kenya Harlequins at Nakuru Athletics club in 2018.
“I was a little bit tense but calls went on well. There were negative reactions from few fans who uttered abusive words, not believing a woman can officiate in a men’s match, but I concentrated on the game, and I think I did rather well,” she said.
“From that experience, I wanted to just fly high and build up my status as a firm female referee.”
She has officiated Kenya Cup matches and admits she has learned a lot.
“My confidence has grown and I have proved that I deserve to be there on the field.”
She has made great strides in the whistleblowing business.
The school teacher made her debut in international rugby in 2018, being appointed the assistant referee for the Elgon Cup between Kenya and Uganda in Kampala.
She has also officiated in the Victoria Falls Sevens in Zimbabwe and the Rugby Africa Junior Barthes Trophy.
Liyosi admits that while officiating one has to have a thick skin to survive the noisy fans and their not so pleasant comments.
“It’s interesting because people ask me how I am coping in a male-dominated game.
“Tell them I work hard and just do my best. Anything outside the marked pitch is a sideshow. I don’t know anything else.
“Today I can make my decisions and not have to worry about letting anyone down, or letting myself down because I have confidence in how I read the game and interpret the rules.
“The key thing for me in any game I officiate is to stay focused and then review the match afterwards with players, my seniors and coaches and improving. Rugby refereeing is a daily learning experience,” she explained.
“The game’s stakeholders will respect you if you admit you got something wrong. They will equally respect you if you show them they are dead wrong and your calls and decisions were in accordance with the game’s rules.”
However, she admits she has made mistakes unknowingly.
“Referees are human beings. You call what you see and can miss a call. To err is human”.
She hopes to inspire other women to want to pick up refereeing as a result of seeing her out on the field.
“It’s not hard to be a woman referee. Aspiring women referees should not fear the shouting crowd. That’s part of the game.”
She says a good referee must be physically and mentally fit, be time conscious, a fast learner and not police the game but let it flow.
She also points out that it helps to research your upcoming game.
“Look for videos and watch the teams you’re set to officiate and call the referees who officiated previous matches involving the sides and seek for their opinions and advice,” says Liyosi, who trains from 5pm to 7pm, four times a week.
She says her lowest moment is when a team loses and blames her.
“It disturbs me while I know I did my best,” says Liyosi who is a great admirer of English rugby union referee Sara Cox, New Zealand rugby union player Portia Woodman and Homeboyz Ladies player Sheilla Kavugwe.
“Never underrate a female referee. If you see her on the pitch she is as qualified as a male referee. Don’t see gender, see a referee and give her respect,” says Liyosi, a graduate of Chwele Girls High School in Bungoma County.
But it is not all smooth sailing.
In her own words, she says one of the biggest challenges she continues to face is the lack of dressing rooms.
“There are no dedicated changing rooms for female referees and this should be food for thought for the Kenya Rugby Referees Association to ensure there are dedicated female changing rooms to make our job a lot easier.”
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