Who is Julia Lee? A rugby league pioneer

Julia Lee

Picture RLHA/via SWpix.com

Across the country, and across all sports, the referee is more often than not, a talking point at least once per game. 

In rugby league the screams of ‘get ‘em onside’ and ‘forward’ are some of the more recognisable sounds in the sport. 

The man in the middle is scrutinised in our game more than most, and even with a video referee we all find ourselves debating over decisions made in the 80 minutes. 

One thing which we agree on is it takes a brave man to take charge of a game where 13 players on each side are going all out to take win home for their team. 

However, in 1987, Julia Lee decided that she wanted to throw herself into that role.

The first time a female had chosen to do so. 

How it began

It all started for Lee when she spotted the boys playing rugby league in the playground, and she wanted to join in.

When she was told she couldn’t, she began to referee the games instead, her first involvement in rugby league. 

A few years later she went to the 1980 Challenge Cup final with her mum, where Hull KR took on city rivals Hull FC. 

KR were 10-5 winners on the day, which saw Lee become a fan of the Robins. 

Since then, Lee was hooked on rugby league, with her mum describing her as obsessed with the sport. 

In high school, Lee wasn’t allowed to play rugby, nor was she at a number of amateur clubs, but continued to watch as a fan. 

When she was 17, her and a friend spotted a sign at one of Hull KR’s games, advertising for referees. 

Julia Lee put her decision to apply down to “a few pale ales” and a dare from her friend. 

After her application had been sent off, she awaited a reply, when it arrived it was addressed ‘dear sir’.

Making rugby history

There were concerns as to where Lee would change before and after games.

But Lee soon became the first female to qualify as a referee in Great Britain and Australia. 

After around three months of deliberation, Lee was invited to her first meeting with the officials. 

Without any proper training, Lee started by refereeing junior games in Hull, until she moved to London. 

It was in the capital where she started to referee open age games.

In 1991 she became the first female referee to take charge of a professional men’s game in either code. 

This was after she had moved to Australia, after originally only going to follow Great Britain. 

She decided to spend a year training as a match official in Manly, which was her first proper coaching in how to officiate a game. 

After returning home, Lee began to make her way through the ranks, officiating in the National Conference League Premier Division, which was the highest in the amateur game. 

Alongside this, Lee refereed in reserve games of professional clubs. 

That was when, in 1991, Lee took charge of her first professional game at Keighley Cougars, making history. 

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Julia Lee would continue to referee games throughout the 90’s, where she would continue to make history. 

In 1996, Lee was selected as a referee for the test between Australia and Great Britain, before continuing her international career in 1997, taking charge of the New Zealand vs Great Britain test in the southern hemisphere. 

In 1998 Lee was selected as a referee as the Kiwi’s visited Great Britain.

Lee had established herself as an international referee.

Women’s rugby league advocate

In 2000, Lee was forced to call time on her refereeing career due to an injury. However she still continued to have an involvement within the sport.  

She went on to work for the RFL for more than 20 years and is a passionate advocate for equality within sport. 

During her time with the RFL, Lee secured £29 million worth of funding from Sport England whilst leading the development department.

Her impact has been felt across the sport too; despite her saying that it has taken too long for women’s rugby league to get to where it needs to be. 

Lee has also launched a campaign, alongside Janie Frampton, who was one of football’s first female referees. It aims to promote diversity to companies, to help them increase their talent pool.

In rugby league there are currently two female referees; Caitlin Beevers and Tara Jones, both of whom also play in the Women’s Super League. 

Meanwhile there are two female referees in Australia, who have been officials in professional men’s games. 

Julia Lee was a pioneer of our sport; she overcame barriers to become involved and made a successful career. 

Lee is a trailblazer for women’s rugby league.

MORE: Sky Sports to show more Women’s Super League as 2022 fixtures released