Jenny Bentel: International Rugby Referee

by | May 1, 2007

No stranger to breaking records, Jenny Bentel is the first South African woman referee to officiate a Women’s World Cup game last year, and in 2005 became the first woman to blow the whistle in a men’s provincial rugby match, when she took charge of the under-19 clash between the Golden Lions and the Griffons at the University of Johannesburg.

This sports-mad inspirational woman told gsport Features Desk a little about being a referee, and gives a few tips on a few issues prospective referee’s should consider.

What is it about sport that gets you going?

I’ve always been involved in sport which was dominated by men originally.

Many many years ago, myself and my sister started paddling as Women’s Singles in the Dusi Marathon and the Umkomaas Marathon, where it was an absolute no-no for women to do it, because it was ‘too dangerous’ for us to do it.

It really took a lot of pushing and shoving to get our way, nowadays the girls are earning fantastic prize money, and we used to paddle for absolutely nothing.

South African Referee Jenny Bentel (obscured) officiates her first Women's World Cup Match between Ireland and France (Ireland 0 - 43 France) on 31 August, 2006, in Edmonton, Canada. Photo: Dale MacMillan 

How do you approach sport as a woman?

I’m not a campaigner for women’s rights, I’m pretty selfish in that way that I’m pretty focussed in what I want to achieve, and if I see something that I can do, I will leave no stone unturned until I get to do what I want to do.

Normally there are some really stupid reasons why people stop me from doing things, very silly reasons, ‘Just because’, you know, ‘It’s never been done’.

The moment you question the norm, what is the norm really, ‘norm’ is normal, and what is ‘normal’? ‘Normal’ is average, and who wants to be average?

What do you do for a living?

I am a dental hygienist, which is pretty normal (laughs out loud).

Where were you born, and where do you live now?

I was born in Pretoria, and I now live in Cape Town. I absolutely love it here, there is so much outdoor life.

I live on a green belt, and I open my gates and go out with my dogs, and in a few minutes I’m on the mountain where I can run, it’s really fantastic.

Talking about settling in Cape Town…

People talk about being accepted…. I don’t need to be accepted. By whom? Yeah, anyway (laughs).

How did you become a rugby referee?

It wasn’t specifically rugby, it was all sports, you know, I did road running, canoeing, …

I love any sport. I’ve always followed rugby, I mean, living in Pretoria, it’s just a part of going to Loftus, I used to go with my dad, my sister and I, and that’s how I got involved in it.

But it was not there for women to do, so it was merely something I could participate in by watching on television.

I was watching one day, when I started focussing on the refereeing, and I thought, “But hang on a bit, I can do that!”

And then it just basically came to me, and I picked up the phone book, and phoned up, and they said, ‘Ja, come along’.  And that’s how it all started! Just one phone call.

How can a gsport reader become a referee?

Join your local referee society, like Western Province or the Golden Lions, there is a very good infrastructure at the moment, you get welcomed, there is coaching, and you get helped along the way.

It’s not as frowned upon as it was before. Oh, you still get the usual moans and groans from the team, ‘How can a woman do it (referee)’, but …

In Western Province specifically, there are about three or four of us actively refereeing in club rugby, so here they are completely comfortable being refereed by a woman.

Do you see yourself achieving greater things as a referee?

I’ll have to find another 20 years in front of me I would, but I’m doing as much as I can as fast as I can at the moment.

Did you ever play rugby?

No, never. You know, when I started refereeing, there was no women’s rugby. That’s why I started refereeing in the men’s league.

I must admit I’m not that into contact sports, I’m not the biggest person there. I have been tackled, and I have been hurt, and believe me, it’s not for me!

Not having played, is that an impediment to your ability as a referee?

Not at all, you know I have a sporting brain, I can grasp thing very quickly, I have an absolute passion for sport, and I’ve picked it up quickly.

It’s really up to the individual what you make of it, if you’re attentive, and if you absorb, and if you learn, listen and become part of the game, then you can pick it up.

What are the key attributes of a good referee?

The first criteria is that you have got to be fit enough. If you don’t get to the break-down quick enough, you’re going to start a second, third or fourth offence.

You’ve got to be quick, you must be self-confident, you must be calm, don’t get sucked in, because there is so much pressure the players put on.

So, fitness, composure, and quick thinking on your feet!

How do you keep fit?

I’ve always been fit, I run…  In fact, last week I ran the London Marathon.

How did you do, what was your time?

No, you don’t want to know that (laughs). I ran with a friend, who called me at the last moment, and I felt like I was in a bun-fight. Thirty-six thousand people, you try to run fast in that (laughs).

What makes you most proud to be South African?

I love South Africa! I’ve looked at it carefully over the past couple of years, and I find that I don’t see myself as belonging to a certain group, a certain culture or a certain language group.

I feel like I’m a South African, I love the country, I love the people, I love the environment, and if everyone could just feel like that and stop looking for reasons to be different from anyone else, this could be a wonderful place!

People look for many reasons to discriminate and to judge each other, and people must stop doing that and be South African!

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Launched in 2006, gsport exists to enhance the commercial prospects of our women athletes, and other women in sport, by telling the inspiring story of SA women in sport. Thank you for your contribution!

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