New play tells story of one woman’s fight to become world’s first referee of men’s Rugby League

What happens when a feisty 12 year old lass from Hull decides that her career lies in the male-dominated world of Rugby League?

A new play, ‘Ref’, produced by arts and social change charity Space2, is inspired by the true story of Julia Lee, who survived and thrived against the odds to become one of the first women to referee a men’s Rugby League match in Great Britain and Australia in the early 1990s.

Moving from the 1980s to the present day this fictionalised, heartwarming account, written by playwright Sarah Jane Dickenson, follows the story of a girl called Alex as she tackles the status quo in order to prove that she is as good as, if not better than, the men she works alongside.

‘Ref’, directed by Rod Dixon of Red Ladder Theatre, is part of a larger Space2 project called ‘Crossing the Line’ which aims to uncover and share the stories of women connected to Rugby League. The project will work in partnership with Rugby League Clubs and Foundations, based in the northern heartlands, taking the theatre performance and interactive community workshops into those communities.

Dawn Fuller, Strategic Director of Space2, said:

“Space2 has a track record of working with people to uncover their real life stories and using the process to empower people – in this case, women.”

“The performances of Ref! are a catalyst for meeting and chatting with women who’ve been involved with Rugby League in Hull, Batley, Castleford and Featherstone over decades, bring their stories to the wider community and support positive development with local women.’

Julia, aged 50, is quietly proud that her story will finally be told:

“I’m excited because it enables me to use my own experiences to support other women to build their confidence and skills to overcome barriers to succeed.” she said. “I’m not just a survivor – I thrive on what I do and I want them to as well.”

Julia retired in 2000, due to a back injury, and became a Director of Community Projects and Events for Rugby League in 2012. She eventually managed to bring about changes that she could only have dreamed about as a young woman.

“Telling my story will allow me to reach out to women who still experience discrimination in their everyday lives, and help them realise that they are in control and can realise their true potential,” she said.

The play, which premieres in Hull on 5th July, will be linked to workshops where members of the public will be encouraged to bring along stories and memorabilia relating to Rugby League.

All the stories and memories that people share will be part of a wider collection of artefacts and archives at Hull Kingston Rovers and the National Rugby League Museum due to open in Bradford in 2021.

In addition Julia will work directly with a group of local women who will receive workshops and one to one coaching and help to record stories and for the museum collection.

‘Ref’ will have two performances in Hull on 5th and 12th July before going on tour in West Yorkshire in the Autumn.

‘Ref ‘ is funded by Arts Council England and the University of Hull and supported by Hull Kingston Rovers, Featherstone Rovers, Castleford Tigers, Batley Bulldogs, Hull Kingston Rovers, Community Trust and One to One Development Trust.