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Sky is the limit for high-flying Sabena

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SOMEHOW Sabena Moylan manages to mix working as an air hostess for Virgin Atlantic with rugby refereeing in Munster, along with extensive charity work for the London-based Atlas Foundation.

As recently as August, her work brought her to almost every continent. Rugby-wise she has attended the Rugby World Cup and the 2009 Lions tour to South Africa. Next month, the former Shannon Comprehensive and IT Tralee student will touch down in Chicago for the Ireland v New Zealand international.

Currently working her way back from a knee injury, Moylan started refereeing in 2012. She calculates that there are four female rugby referees in Munster and 10 in Ireland.

“There was a bit of communication between me and the Munster branch. I was touch judge in my first game out in St Mary’s. I wasn’t thrown in at the deep end in the middle of the pitch. They’re good like that. They let you touch judge for a month or two before they let you out on your own. Then you referee development games, which is a major thing in women’s rugby. There are so many games but there are not enough referees to cover them,” she explained.

Sabena finds men a bit easier to referee than women. “Men are far more understanding, whereas with some of the girls, it’s all new to them. They think you’re one of the girls and they might speak to you like one of their team-mates. They might give you a bit more lip.”

She is certain that she is the only female rugby referee working in the aviation industry.

“There are definitely no more referees, that I know of, in the aviation industry. They are worlds apart. You have this very glamorous Vivienne Westwood uniform but when you come home, you’re brought back to reality if the rain is lashing down and you have to go and referee a match. You’re literally soaked to the bone. We’d be picked up at airports and brought to five-star hotels. Working on a plane, you always have to look perfect but on a rugby pitch, you don’t care how you look.”

Early in her refereeing career, Sabena struck up a relationship with England Rugby and was invited to officiate at a charity match in Twickenham.

“I was going from Shannon to London for work. I was in my Virgin Atlantic uniform, sitting there reading my laws of rugby book. Two RFU guys sat right beside me. They’d had a great night in Galway at the Ireland v England Saxons game. That was about four years ago. Alex Murphy gave me his email address and the following week I was a guest of England Rugby at England v France. They have been really, really supportive and without them, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing. I wouldn’t have stayed at it or pushed myself. I refereed a game in Twickenham in 2013. They invited me to the Injured Players Foundation Game. MPs were playing in it. I was assistant referee in that game and it was a huge honour.”

That led Sabena to meeting Jason Leonard, a World Cup winner with England in 2003. He founded the Atlas Foundation, which aims to help disadvantaged children through rugby, across the globe.

Sabena feels a deep connection with the charity, having witnessed deplorable scenes while travelling around the world.

“I go to Delhi once a month with my job. I’ve seen these children lying on the streets, lying in rubbish bins with no parents, no food and nowhere to play. What Atlas is doing is bringing them out of the slums and bringing them onto a rugby pitch. They would never be allowed to play on a rugby pitch because they are so poor. Also, in India, you have the caste system and if you don’t belong to a certain caste, you can’t fit into society or play sport. What Atlas is hoping to do is to raise enough funds to buy a rugby pitch in Delhi for the Delhi Hurricanes. These children could then play rugby, any time day or night,” she pointed out.

The foundation is planning to hold a number of fundraising events in Ireland. The first is on Sunday, December 11 in Flannery’s Bar, Limerick. It will be a question and answer session with Jason Leonard and other rugby personalities.

“Jason said he’ll bring as many famous rugby players as he can. It will be a big event to raise money for the Atlas Foundation. Everything goes back into the charity.

“In spring, my brother Christopher is helping me to organise a fundraising golf event in Clare.”

Sabena says she is from Shannon, although the family live in Sixmilebridge. “That’s up for dispute. I grew up in Shannon and we lived there until I was 16. I went to the Comp (Shannon Comprehensive). My parents reluctantly moved me to the sticks in Sixmilebridge, which was worlds apart from what I was used to. That was quite traumatising. I used to have to get what we called the ‘bogger bus’ into school every day. I did my Leaving Cert when I was 16. I went to college in Tralee IT, where I studied tourism and languages. Then I joined Ryanair, so I wasn’t in Sixmilebridge long,” Sabena recounted.

She later worked for Aer Lingus and has been employed by Virgin Atlantic for six years.

“The only place I haven’t been to is New Zealand. I’ve been on every continent. South Africa is my favourite place because it’s such a big rugby nation. I was there a few weeks ago watching South Africa get beaten by Argentina on the TV. That didn’t go down too well. South Africans don’t take defeat that well, a bit like Leinster,” she chortled.

Sabena’s knee was operated on by surgeon Dr Joseph Sparkes and she is hopeful of returning to refereeing this season.

“The 2015 Rugby World Cup came around at a good time. I enjoyed every single minute of that and it stopped me focusing on the injury and other things in my life. It made me want to get back into rugby. England Rugby were very good to me in sorting tickets for games. When I was out injured, I thought maybe I wouldn’t get back refereeing, so I looked at other things. I started getting into rugby writing and I did some media work on rugby as well. That’s another avenue go do down when I retire!” she laughed.

Sabena is hopeful of making a gradual return to refereeing.

“I’ll start touch judging and assistant refereeing and, hopefully, I’ll be on my own after Christmas. The problem is there is a shortage of referees. They really need more referees in rugby, especially female referees.”

She won’t be available for any Munster League match on November 5. She’ll be in Chicago for the Ireland v All Blacks game.

“It’s going to be a momentous occasion. I did the Lions Tour in South Africa in 2009, which is something I’ll never forget. I flew in from Dubai, went over to Cape Town, J’borg and Durban. I got a few games in. That was the joys of the job. You can just jump on a plane.”

Her brother Christopher played golf with Rory McIlroy as a schoolboy, while Sabena’s father Christy golfed for Ireland and in the inter-provincial tournaments for Munster and Leinster.

While talking to The Clare Champion, Sabena suddenly recalled a time in 1998 when the newspaper landed her in a tight spot at school in Shannon.

“Myself and my sister Cliona decided to take the afternoon off school and get the bus into Ennis to meet our pop idols OTT. Little did we know that after mitching off school, our picture would feature on the front page of The Clare Champion the next day. I was walking down the corridor and all I saw was my Irish teacher Mr Arkins, with a Clare Champion rolled under his arm saying, ‘Moylan, is the reason you weren’t in my Irish class yesterday evening? Off to see some boy band?” she recalled, in stitches at the memory.


Peter O’Connell

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