Elite Amateur Sport Rugby

HIGH ACHIEVERS: Ottawa’s Julianne Zussman named only North American referee for Olympic rugby 7s

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HIGH ACHIEVERS: Stay-Safe Edition
Keeping Local Sport Spirit High During the Pandemic

By Martin Cleary

A tap on the shoulder in the business world is usually not a good feeling for an employee sitting on a chair at his/her desk. It usually means bad news is about to come your way.

Ottawa’s Julianne Zussman felt a tap on her shoulder in 2018. But this attention-seeking moment turned out to be a positive situation. The freshly retired national women’s rugby team athlete was being directed down a new path.

“Folks from Rugby Canada … showed me the referee pathway for ex-players,” Zussman explained in an email interview. “This opened my eyes to the world of refereeing and how I could use my playing experience to give back.”

Powered by her enthusiasm and dedication to rugby, the 34-year-old has progressed so quickly in the refereeing circles at the rugby 7s level that she has been appointed by World Rugby to officiate at the Tokyo Summer Olympics.

The Ashbury College and McGill University graduate will be the only ref from North America among the 22 officials selected from 12 countries across four continents. The group of experienced and young officials includes eight women.

“It’s an honour to be on the big stage and to represent my country,” said Zussman, who wasn’t asked by the national team coach to join the women’s team for the 7s debut at the 2016 Olympics. She was part of the 7s program in 2008.

Instead, Zussman made her mark in the 15-a-side game. In 44 games for Canada, she scored 18 tries, competed in three Rugby World Cups, winning a silver medal in 2014, and played in two rounds of the inaugural 2012-13 Sevens Series.

Julianne Zussman (centre) appeared for Canada 44 times during her rugby playing career. File photo

“The Olympics are special because they transcend the sports world,” she added. “The event speaks to people all over the world and our sport is just one part of the spectacle.

“It’s a privilege to be involved. It’s my responsibility to do well by the players and coaches who have worked so hard to prepare for this iconic competition.”

Zussman stepped away from the game as a rugby union player three years ago because “I could feel the energy of the next generation of players and it was their time.” She played for the national team from 2007-18.

When she started refereeing, Zussman took as many women’s, men’s, 7s, 15s, high school and international assignments as she could get.

“Now, I’m making more sustainable choices for my longevity,” she continued.

Before being selected for the top-level HSBC 7s World Series, Zussman refereed on the North American and Caribbean nations series (RAN 7s) as well as the 2019 Pan Am Games in Lima, Peru.

Being promoted to the HSBC 7s World Series from the regional level, Zussman “did a lot of preparation to make that transition as seamless as possible.”

“Rugby laws are not black and white,” she wrote, “and there’s an onus on the referee to adjudicate the laws fairly and consistently. I think I bring a unique perspective as an ex-player. I know firsthand what the players expect.

“The transition was very humbling, refereeing is harder than it looks. You only get one look at the play and you need to make a decision in a split-second. I love being on the field and feeling the pressure to perform.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has restricted the amount of international competition for the players and the referees. Zussman has had her pre-Olympic plan derailed by the coronavirus.

“I’ve used the down time to focus work on my gaps with the support of my coach and peers,” Zussman wrote. “It’s incredible how you can use video as a learning tool to make faster and more effective decisions on the field.”

Zussman’s coach is an experienced referee, who assumes a mentorship role to help with goal setting, technical performance and tactical analysis.

Martin Cleary has written about amateur sports for 49 years. A past Canadian sportswriter of the year and Ottawa Sports Awards Lifetime Achievement in Sport Media honouree, Martin retired from full-time work at the Ottawa Citizen in 2012, but continued to write a bi-weekly “High Achievers” column for the Citizen/Sun.

When the pandemic struck, Martin created the “Stay-Safe Edition” to provide some positive news during tough times, via his Twitter account at first and now here at OttawaSportsPages.ca.

Martin can be reached by e-mail at martincleary51@gmail.com and on Twitter @martincleary.

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