Nella Ngahuru’s tenure as a player in the CRL Women’s Premiership spans more than 16 years – but she’s simultaneously in the formative stages of blazing a trail in the Canterbury Rugby League refereeing ranks.

First pulling on the boots for Addington Magpies, Ngahuru represented Canterbury from 2007-09, moved to Wellington and played for that province, then had a stint in her hometown of Rotorua, where she coached junior rugby league for two years.

Ngahuru returned to Christchurch, turned out for Eastern Eagles in 2020, was a try-scorer in Woolston Rams’ grand final loss to Sydenham Swans and earned Canterbury selection again in 2021, and rejoined the Eagles last year.

But her rugby league journey took another turn ahead of the 2023 season. She picked up the whistle for the first time and has quickly become a valued member of Canterbury Rugby League’s refereeing contingent, who are backed by NZ MEP Fabrications.

“I met (referee and CRL Competitions & Operations Manager) Jordan Chand, he was trying to find refs and the way he talked about it really motivated me,” Ngahuru says.

“I went to training and Jordan kept pushing me, to keep coming, and I don’t think that without all that encouragement and support I’d still be there.

“Jordan, Kev (Ah-Ken), Jack (Feavers), Liam (O’Brien) – now I know all the guys and they all support me and look after me, so that’s why I love what I do right now.”

Ngahuru has wholeheartedly thrown herself into refereeing, becoming a permanent fixture on Monday and Wednesday nights in CRL’s youth competitions, and controlling the 18s girls series between Linwood and Hornby earlier in the season.

Although being a current player precludes her from refereeing Women’s Premiership games for now, she has served as a touch judge in that competition and is accelerating her rugby league officiating education by running the lines in the Massetti Cup.

It’s been a steep learning curve, but one characterised by steady improvement.

“I’ve learnt a lot, I didn’t realise how different being a player to being a ref is. I’ve learnt more about rugby league now than I ever have.

“I’ve got a lot better – when I first started I was all over the place, a bit confused. But because of the knowledge I’ve got now, I’m more on point.”

While it’s early days in Ngahuru’s refereeing career, she harbours some lofty goals – but hanging up the playing boots is not on the cards anytime soon.

“My goal is to one day ref a New Zealand game,” she asserts.

“My daughter has just made New Zealand (age-group) this year, so it inspires me to keep doing what I’m doing, for her.

“I love rugby league so much and I think I’ve got a few more years in me to be backing down from playing.”

Canterbury Rugby League Director of Football Jamie Lester praises Ngahuru’s attitude and commitment to building her refereeing skillset.

“It’s awesome to see, Nella is leading the way in the female refereeing stakes in Canterbury and she’s been eager to learn and develop as the season’s gone on,” Lester enthuses.

“It was great having a female referee role model for the 18s girls games and there was some really good feedback from the coaches about her progression over the three games.

“She’s been really valuable in the youth grades and as a touch judge in the senior grades. It’s a great transition to make, from playing to refereeing – usually they know the rules and how the game is played so it’s good to see players progressing into those ranks.”

Meanwhile, Ngahuru challenges the preconceptions about refereeing and urges anyone – male or female – who is thinking about getting involved to take the plunge.

“People may not want (to become a referee) because they’re worried about (people on the) sidelines … but we have a lot of great support and encouragement, it’s given me the boost to keep going, that’s for sure.

“When they see the outcome of where I am now (as a referee), hopefully it might encourage them to give it go – I definitely recommend it.”

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