Su Carty has many strings to her bow. Her passion for rugby was stirred watching the Five Nations from the comfort of her own living room in Trien near Castlerea. Since then, she has played the game alongside being at the coalface in terms of promoting women’s rugby in Ireland and all over the world.
Just for good measure, she dabbled with refereeing five years ago. Progressing through the ranks, she currently officiates at J1 level, which is the standard just below the All-Ireland League.
On Saturday week last, Su was presented with the Allain Rolland award for Referee Performance of the Year at the annual Leinster Referees Dinner. Now in its third year, the award, recognising former international rugby referee Allain Rolland, honours consistency in performance, something that the West Roscommon native could identify with.
“I suppose the award recognises someone who is available, flexible and has progressed to the next stage — someone who has excelled over the season to the point where they’ve made a significant move or change in what they’re doing,” Su explained.
Su has refereed men’s U-20 games, schools’ rugby, Women’s AIL matches and has been an assistant referee for women’s internationals. Her interest in refereeing spawned from her philosophy of striving to make a difference. During her time as Development Manager for Women’s World Rugby, initially, the narrative had existed that it wasn’t easy to attract women to play the game, never mind being handed the responsibility of overseeing matches.
“It’s very easy to say we can’t do something until we test it. So I tried it. My first match was an U-13 games in Terenure College. I don’t think I was as nervous since the day I say my Leaving Cert. I thought that I would be crap at it. But at the end, something inside me kept telling me that I wanted to do it again,” she recalled.
Su soon realised that she had the potential to progress, subsequently being selected as part of a focus group. She highlights coaching and feedback as the cornerstones to her improvement as a referee.
“It’s a combination of quality coaching and assessing. You’re constantly being assessed. You take very clear lessons from games and learn from them. It’s like a game plan really. You’re always looking to see what you can bring to the table the next day,” she explained.
Su admits that she “hadn’t a clue” that she was in line for the Allain Rolland award but she felt that things had been coming together nicely over the previous couple of months.
“I did a junior schools’ cup quarter-final recently, and I really felt at the end of the match that I had nailed it. Everything I had learned and taken on board had come together. When you’re the fittest person on the field, it should make everything else much easier.
“The pathway to move forward is there. Refereeing has been very good to me. It has opened so many doors. I’ve been to places like Zimbabwe, which was a really amazing experience,” she pointed out.
Her playing career commenced in Guinness Rugby Club in Crumlin. She also spent some time in De La Salle, Palmerstown, where she was coached by former outspoken RTE rugby pundit George Hook.
“He was really brilliant. He’s as loud on the pitch as he is on the television,” she laughed.
Stints at UL Bohemians in Limerick and St. Mary’s in Dublin followed. At one stage, she was playing and refereeing, making her appreciate the role of the person in the middle even more.
“I played at scrum-half. I used to be always in the referee’s ear. When I started officiating, there was a huge transformation in my attitude towards referees. I was in both camps. You realise that the referee is there to make the best possible decision and that they’re trying to get things as right as they can,” she highlighted.
Having held the position of Vice President of the Irish Women’s Rugby Football Union (IWRFU) in 2006, she was appointed IWRFU President for 2007 and 2008.
“Back then, women’s rugby was being run by a small group of dedicated people. There were no resources really. It was being run on a shoe-string budget,” she remembered.
During Sue’s presidency, women’s rugby was successfully integrated with the IRFU. She admits that the integration changed the goalposts in terms of the how women’s rugby was subsequently viewed.
“Back then, women’s rugby was lucky to get any coverage. You might get the corner of a page in a daily newspaper. Nowadays, it’s an integral part of the Six Nations weekend. The games are live on television. We have the Rugby World Cup coming to Ireland in August, which will bring the game to a whole new level here,” she added.
In January 2009, Sue was appointed the first Women’s Development Manager for World Rugby, a role that saw her visit 40 countries over a seven-year period.
“There was really no international structure when I started. But since 2009, we’ve increased female participation from four per cent of the playing population to 25 per cent of the global playing population. There’s huge respect and credibility for women’s rugby within the game now,” she attested.
All 120 member unions are now running programmes for women and girls. Rugby 7s made its debut at the Rio Olympics last year, bringing the game to a wider global audience.
Yet it seems that other women’s sports haven’t enjoy as much progress if the sight of the Irish women’s international football team having to make a stand last week on the conditions they often play under is anything to go by.
“I feel that we’ve been lucky in women’s rugby but it’s still not perfect. We just need to move forward and celebrate our sportspeople in Ireland regardless of gender. I really wonder sometimes what are we fighting for?”
In April 2016, inspired by her love of sport and experience in mental health, Su set up her own business which hones in on performance and well being in business and sport. Among the numerous services she provides, she often works with businesses and organisations representing sports people to design tailor made programmes, inspiring them to be more creative and innovative.
“I’m passionate about mental health and well being in sport. Rugby has given me a grounding in the impact I can make, but I want to help as many people as possible,” she enthused.
From the moment, Su Carty nurtured her passion for rugby, she hasn’t shirked responsibility. She has constantly challenged herself, all in the name of making a difference. She was born to lead, and women’s rugby has reaped a handsome dividend from her leadership.
Rest assured, the next challenge isn’t too far away.