There was only one other female official in the professional sector before her: Christine Hanizet. Today, Aurélie Groizeleau is writing a new chapter in French women's refereeing after signing a semi-professional contract.
"It's incredible when you see the status of my colleagues Sara Cox, Hollie Davidson, Joy Neville, where it's completely integrated, where a real development has been made around them within their respective union. Today, things are moving and it's quite positive for development," she says.
Since 1 September, 2021, Groizeleau has taken a new step that places her in the same line as her illustrious predecessors. "Alhambra (Nievas) and Joy (Neville) are for me the most representative of female officials worldwide because they are the ones who, in terms of media, have really democratised it. They have also participated in major events on the men's circuit, especially Joy on the EPCR matches. This has highlighted the practice of women's refereeing," states the La Rochelle native.
Injury put an end to her dream
Groizeleau was born into it. With parents who are rugby fans, she had to no choice but to follow the sport. "I'm from a small town where there were no other possibilities. It was in fact the only team sport with football, so the choice was quickly made. When you grow up in rugby, you don't really go for football," she laughs.
At the age of 15, she joined the Pôle Espoir with Elodie Poublan, and was quickly spotted and selected for the French team, both in 15s and sevens. "It was five caps with France A, which still existed at the time; that was in 2007," she recalls. Not yet ready for Rugby World Cup 2006 in Edmonton, Canada, she began to dream of the next one, four years later in London.
"The Rugby World Cup was my goal. Clearly I saw myself having a career as a top-level player; that was my goal. And health problems did not allow me to continue with contact sports. I had to make a choice, against my will. When you are young, it is a bit difficult to accept."
These health problems involved a rupture of the cruciate ligaments, putting a sudden stop to a career that had looked promising. Groizeleau entered a dark tunnel from which she found it hard to see the end.
"It's a bit like when you are confronted with a death. You have to mourn," she admits today.
"I felt like I was on top of a mountain with the French team training camps. I had the opportunity to play in the Six Nations, and everything collapsed overnight. I had to accept the situation and it was a long process. It took me almost four years to really move on."
Opening new perspectives
Groizeleau then took up refereeing, with no particular goal other than to keep her feet firmly planted in rugby.
"And then I reached the Fédérale 3 and I had the honour of making my first touch in the Six Nations," she says. An achievement that initially frightened her.
"I was afraid because I had already lost that dream as a player. In fact, I was afraid that something would happen, that it would happen again. But when I heard the Marseillaise, I had tears in my eyes. That was the trigger. And at that moment I said to myself that I could in fact reach that level again. It was a bit of a fight against the person I was before. Today, I have clearly mourned my life as a player and I am a full referee.
Yet her debut was not a dream; she struggled to impose herself upon the game. "My first experiences were in the Toulouse region with a few local derbies. And it wasn't all fun. But it hardens you quickly," she smiles.
Very quickly, Groizeleau developed two sides to her refereeing approach: a firm and demanding side and a smiling and serene side at the same time. An exercise that she handles wonderfully.
"Many people tell me that when I referee, the players are less likely to complain. Maybe we calm down situations more quickly. Maybe our feminine side means we have a lot less conflict to deal with on the pitch," she says.
Rugby World Cup goal
Groizeleau has refereed the last three editions of the Women's Six Nations. She was due to make her ProD2 debut in France in September, but was called upon to referee two matches in the RWC 2021 Europe Qualifier in Italy in preparation for Rugby World Cup 2021, played in New Zealand in 2022.
"My ProD2 debut will be for the second block in October. It's a great step forward because the level of requirement of the professional sector is important. In the axis of progression and with the aim of going to the Rugby World Cup, it is a beautiful challenge," she says.
"The Rugby World Cup is really the number one goal, that's no secret. There are a few of us on the panel. They have prioritised women's refereeing; we mustn't miss out.
"We're going to have quite a few competitions that will take us up to the Rugby World Cup, and all these tournaments will prepare us to reach this objective and also to prepare our group life. The group life is also an important moment because when we are in New Zealand, we will live together for two months.
"It's a dream, especially in New Zealand, which is the country of rugby! It makes the French people dream. For me, it would be the biggest event I could experience in my career. It's a lot of envy and excitement. Postponed for a year, I'm really looking forward to it... and already in May to be on the list!"
Groizeleau's high standards are recognised by her peers. Whether it is for her qualities as a referee or as a student. "I take English lessons every week," she says, aware that this universal language of rugby can help her in her daily life.
"I hated it at school; I had a poor level and I came from very, very far away. As a French person, speaking English is not always easy, but now I can speak English without thinking. My level is not perfect, but at least people understand me, despite the accent. I think I'm getting better and I'm going to keep improving."
Groizeleau is doing all she can to be selected in the panel of referees for Rugby World Cup 2021 in New Zealand. Semi-professional, she has even managed to free up time on the family farm, where her parents raise pigeons.
"There is no real season for pigeons; they produce all year round. But there is a season linked to consumption: it's Christmas. And since we're preparing for Christmas four months before, it will fall right during the Rugby World Cup," she laughs.
She missed one Rugby World Cup as a player, she will do anything to participate in one as a referee.