Canadian Maggie Cogger-Orr to referee Rugby World Cup opener in New Zealand

When South Africa and France kick off the Women's Rugby World Cup in New Zealand on Saturday, a Canadian will blow the whistle to get the party started.

Transplanted Canuck Maggie Cogger-Orr will referee the opening game at Eden Park in her adopted Auckland home. The 12-country competition was originally slated to start in September 2021 but was postponed due to the pandemic.

"I think it's a really cool opportunity to sort of kick off a tournament that's been a long time coming, with COVID and all those things like that," Cogger-Orr said. "I feel really fortunate to get to be the person to blow the first whistle to kick it all off."

Like Cogger-Orr, the whistle in question has been on the move.

Adventurers Ron Rutland and Adam Nunn have cycled 16,500 kilometres from Tokyo to Auckland to deliver the whistle for the opening match. Their 210-day, 14-country journey, dubbed Race to Rugby World Cup, is raising money for charity.

It's been a big year on the field for the 30-year-old Cogger-Orr. She made her test debut as a referee in the Women's Six Nations in Europe in April and has also officiated test matches in Australia, Japan and New Zealand.

Saturday marks her eighth test match. Cogger-Orr will also referee the Japan-Italy game and work the U.S.-Japan match as an assistant referee in opening-round games.

Her parents are flying in from Canada to take in part of the tournament.

Canadians Julianne Zussman and Chris Assmus are also serving as tournament officials — Zussman, a former Canadian international, as an assistant referee and Assmus as a television match official (TMO). Both Canadians were also part of the Women's Six Nations earlier this year.

The tournament officiating panel features 14 women — nine referees and five assistant referees — with four male TMOs.

Officials for the World Cup's eight knockout-round matches will be chosen on merit by World Rugby.

Cogger-Orr is no stranger to Eden Park, having refereed a recent women's test match there between New Zealand and Japan as part of a doubleheader with the men's Bledisloe Cup game between the All Blacks and Australia. The 50,000-capacity stadium is the largest in New Zealand.

Cogger-Orr grew up in Markham, Ont., before moving to Ottawa where she attended Ashbury College. She did her undergraduate degree in commerce at McMaster, playing rugby with the Marauders for four years.

A year later, in 2014, she moved to New Zealand "probably a little bit (because) of rugby and a little bit of school," she explained.

Cogger-Orr wanted to become a teacher and pursue rugby. At the time, Christchurch was recruiting people to come back after the region was hit by earthquakes, and the University of Canterbury beckoned.

"If you play rugby, the ability to come to New Zealand and see how you stack up over here was a really great opportunity," said Cogger-Orr, who represented Ontario and Canada at age-grade level while playing club rugby for the Toronto Scottish.

She hadn't planned to stay in New Zealand. But unlike Canada, there was a shortage of teachers and she got a job after graduation.

"The more I got involved in rugby here and the more I started to set up my life here, the more permanent it's become," she said.

Today Cogger-Orr is an accounting and economics teacher at Westlake Girls’ High School. She is taking five weeks off for the World Cup, with another two weeks covered by the Kiwi version of March break.

She enjoys life in New Zealand, calling it a "travel-sized version of Canada."

"We've both got mountains. We've both got oceans. We've both got beaches. We've both got lakes," she said. "Geographically often there are places that feel very much alike, particularly the West Coast of Canada … And I think culturally as well — two countries that love sport, that really, really love sport and love people who get behind it. Two countries that are very friendly, very open to new people."

The Australia-New Zealand dynamic is also reminiscent of the Canada-U. S. relationship, she added.

"It's an easy shift to move down here and it's certainly become a place that's definitely become a home to me here," said Cogger-Orr who lives with her English partner Chris as well as a cat.

Cogger-Orr played for her university club team the year she lived in Canterbury before joining the storied College Rifles club side in Auckland.

She had done some refereeing back home, after suffering a knee injury in her third season with McMaster. She picked up the whistle when cleared to run, but not for contact.

It turned out to be the first step to being at the centre of a World Cup opener.

At the time, Cogger-Orr saw refereeing as something she could take up if her playing career did not lead to a World Cup. Her last year playing was in 2016 when the College Rifles won the New Zealand women's club championship.

"I was like 'This seems like a good place to get off the bus and transfer to refereeing and give it a proper go,'" said Cogger-Orr, who is now a permanent resident of New Zealand.

Cogger-Orr moved up the officiating ladder, working the top level of women's club rugby as well as men's rugby in the region. She hopes to next officiate National Provincial Championship play, the level below the men's top-flight Super Rugby competition.

She reckons the split between running men's and women's games is pretty equal during the year.

How Cogger-Orr got into rugby is another story.

At 13, she decided she wanted to play boys' gridiron football at Ashbury College. It was a small school so volunteers were welcome with Cogger-Orr playing defensive back.

"The beauty was in Grade 9 and 10 I was almost the same size as I am now," said the five-foot-five Cogger-Orr. "So I was already fully grown and as big as most of the boys."

As the boys grew, she mostly played special teams due to the size discrepancy.

After practice one day, the rugby coach approached her and invited her to join her team. The coach was former Canadian international Jen Boyd, now head coach of the Ottawa Gee-Gees' women's team.

Cogger-Orr played both sports through high school, also taking part in boys ice hockey given there was no girls side.

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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 6, 2022

Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press