Introducing Bianca Santi – 21 year old referee destined for great things

Kellie Warner is an arts/law graduate now happily working as a freelance writer. Her work has appeared on Theatrepeople and CrowdInk. She is passionate about sport and lives on the Gold Coast. Find her on Twitter @kellkitten.

We all have those moments where our mothers do something that makes us cringe a little, even as we understand it was done out of love. Bianca Santi’s mum, Francene is so proud of her that she wanted people to know about her. Bianca trains with the Parramatta District Referees, was awarded the district junior rep of the year for 2015, is an NRL Development Officer and is also studying Occupational Therapy. Little wonder Francene wants to shout from the rooftops.

When I spoke with Bianca she admitted she hadn’t known her mother had contacted Ladies Who League, singing her praises. She explained with genuine warmth and some laughter that her first thought was, “here we go, what’s all this about?” But it is clear that Bianca gets it, stressing her mum is a huge support.

Bianca’s affair with the greatest game of all started at an early age. At school she saw other kids playing rugby league and wanted to join in. So she and her brothers signed up and started playing. Weekends also included venturing to watch games, Bianca recalls being forced to follow her father’s team.

“Dad used to tell us, if you don’t go for the Manly Sea Eagles then you are sleeping outside. When we were nine or ten, we believed him,” Bianca laughed as she told me. I think many of us can feel her pain.

Right up until she was 12 she kept playing but then ran into difficulties, as she couldn’t keep playing in the boys comp. She tried OZtag and then was lured back to league again. At just 13 she was put into an under 16’s girls team, but this proved too much.

“I played a couple of times but it didn’t work out. I was absolutely smashed by them. I wasn’t big enough at all and I was too young playing up against 16 year olds. My dad said no, we are not letting you do it anymore. I was devastated,” Bianca says.

The use of the word devastated, was if anything an understatement.  She emphasises the word with dark, deep emotion. I could feel her pain; her wounded voice expressing more than words how she still felt the sting, even years later. She paused, quickly regained her composure and continued, explaining as her playing career ended at just 14 years of age, her refereeing career began and here she is, seven years later.

Finding that she could still participate in the game went a long way to healing the hurt. As well as channeling her passion for the game into being a match official, she also works as an NRL Development Officer where she can teach kids how to play.

“So my whole job and main focus is to show young girls they can play. I really try and focus on girls because at a young age a lot of girls are really intimidated by the sport … but then you also educate them about the game.” She says with pride.

It is clear that Bianca wants young girls to be able to play if they choose to. She proudly tells me that the Parramatta district are starting a comp for under 12’s or 13’s for girls, something that would possibly have changed things for her if it had been around when she was a teen.

You might think being female in a male dominated sport would be her greatest challenge, but she tells me the biggest hurdle for her was dealing with abuse from spectators. She says that in every crowd there really is always one. Plus as difficult as it is for me to imagine; even as a 14 year old officiating matches she received abuse, something that she admits to struggling with at first.

Now with seven years behind her Bianca says she can block out the crowd and sometimes barely notices them, but says confidence is also key.

“… As you gain more experience and do more games you learn to trust your calls and you learn to be confident in your own ability which makes it a lot easier … because you are confident in yourself, are confident in what you have done and you don’t question yourself after someone has just given you a spray.” Bianca says.

As more females get involved with this great sport the concept of gender shouldn’t be something that is talked about, yet it still cannot quite be avoided. I ask whether being female means she is treated more harshly.

She explains that she gets the usual crowd saying she has no place in the sport because she is female and cops some nasty criticism. But surprisingly she describes how some people treat her differently, in a positive way, showing respect for all she has achieved in a male dominated world.

Regardless of how she is treated, whether good or bad, Bianca just wants to perform her best and sees herself as a referee first and foremost, rather than a female referee.

“I feel I am equal to every other male or female that’s out there. Gender shouldn’t define my role as a referee and at the end of the day, I’m a referee and I have a job and that’s it.” She says.

Bianca has a rather hectic life but I get the impression she wouldn’t have it any other way. Rather than spend her time wondering about what might have been, she has taken the sport even more to her heart. She says it is not a job to her but rather something she simply loves doing. I suggest she perhaps is living the dream, living her passion? I can sense her smiling as she says simply, “yeah, gotta love what you do.”

It is with reluctance I end the call to Bianca as I was enjoying speaking to such a dedicated and passionate young woman. I admit it has been suggested I could talk about the game underwater in any case. But I cannot say goodbye without wishing her luck, hoping one day that she will grace the field officiating in a first grade NRL match. In fact I don’t have to hope I say, as I’m certain it will happen.

Her reply is characteristically modest, “It’s very much a long term goal and you’ve gotta keep at it … keep training. Trying to improve myself and hopefully it pays off in the end. If not, then I’ve had a good time!”

Thanks to the Parramatta Eels for the wonderful photo.