Independent safeguarding chair honoured with lifetime in sport award

Published: Tuesday June 11, 2024

Debbie Innes-Turnill holding her sports award Debbie Innes-Turnill, Independent Chair of the Diocese of Gloucester’s Safeguarding Advisory Panel, has won a Lifetime in Sport award for her contribution to rugby.

She broke barriers to become the first female official on the national rugby referee panel, officiating at women’s rugby world cups and refereeing an international game in 2006.

The award was presented to her at the end of April by Rugby Black List, an organisation that celebrates the achievements of black people in rugby and highlights black role models to inspire current and future generations of leaders.

Debbie, who also works as an independent safeguarding consultant, became a referee in 1991 after dislocating her shoulder playing rugby.

She said: “When I moved to Gloucestershire, I couldn’t play again because of my injury. I was told that women make the teas and wash the kits. I said ‘that was not for me’. A rugby stalwart overheard this and suggested I become a referee. Everybody else in the room looked round.

“Some responded saying ‘You can’t do that, you’re a woman’. I basically said, ‘Just watch me’.”

Soon afterwards, the rugby stalwart took her along to watch a game, where there was no referee present. “He found me some boots, handed me and whistle, and on I went,” she reflected. “I’m sure he knew that the game he took me to didn’t have a referee.”

She joined the Gloucester and District Society of Referees, where she covered men’s, women’s, junior and schools rugby, building up her reputation as a reliable and reasonable referee, and in time became a respected figure in the rugby community.

She said: “When I arrived, teams would say ‘We’ve got Deb today, you know what to expect’.”

Debbie progressed through the ranks, going on to officiate three Women’s Rugby World Cups, and refereeing an international game between New Zealand and Scotland in 2006.

She became the first female official on the national rugby panel, performing the role of an assistant referee, or a touch judge, for 16 seasons.

“I climbed the ladder and got to international level. I’ve officiated at Twickenham, Kingsholm, and stadiums around the world. It’s been an absolute blast.”

Overall, Debbie refereed in rugby for 26 years, retiring in her 40s.

“The vast majority of my refereeing career was in community rugby. I spent a long time being out on the rugby fields of Gloucestershire with the rain beating down in a diagonal. The sort of rugby everyone does day in and out.”

Her role as a referee has impacted other people to get involved in sport and she continues to be a role model for others.

“A number of people have got in touch with me since the award to thank me. For example I used to do some referee training, and one of my trainees recently informed me he’s spent years being on the national panel of referees. His daughter is also now working for the Rugby Football Union.”

Debbie links her success in rugby to her role as a safeguarding consultant and her work in equality, diversity and inclusion.

“In my work, there is very much a sense that children and young people need to see one to be one. I’ve been a deputy head and a headteacher. Children in schools at the time said to me ‘I can be this because I have seen you do it’, and adults from those schools say to me now, ‘I’m doing this because you made me believe that I could’.

“I’ve done this for rugby. I blazed a trail and people have followed.”

The word Leadership spelt out, with Committed to Transformation written underneath.


Leave a Reply

Most popular articles today: