Kat Roche is on her way to Dublin. Literally.
I am speaking to her from the airport as she prepares to fly into the exciting unknown.
She'll have the whistle for the Ireland v Wales women’s Six Nations fixture, becoming only the third American to referee at a Six Nations.
It's her first ever appearance in the middle for a match with such a storied history, and Roche is understandably excited and nervous. Mostly though, she simply can’t wait to be part of the spectacle.
This is definitely going to be the biggest match Kat has ever officiated, though her recent World Rugby qualifier match was also a Big Deal. Sure, there’s pressure - rather immense and for several reasons - but she’s ready for it. The Six Nations. “The Big Show”, she says.
Roche already knew she was getting the Six Nations call up when she got news of the Qualifier. Everyone called to congratulate her. Roche accepted the accolades, quietly thinking to herself “just wait”. Now everyone is even more excited.
The only thing that can beat this moment would be getting the call up to the officiating team attending the Women’s World Cup in New Zealand later this year. The ultimate culmination of years of hard work.
Pennsylvania native Kat Roche began her rugby career playing in high school and for three years in college. She was mostly a number 8 in 15s but she also dabbled in Sevens rugby with Raleigh Venom. Roche attended a couple of camps (collegiate all-American in 2015 and a Serevi 7s residency camp) but then turned her attention toward reffing.
“They told me I needed to be really fit to play Sevens. Then I got as fit as I am to ref but then said to myself ‘I shoulda played Sevens’.” We laugh. I tell her that she’s just as funny as colleague Scott Green and she says “now you see why we get along.” We agree that referees need a funny bone, to be able to laugh at themselves, to take the criticism and brush it off.
Roche became a referee in 2015 after obtaining her degree in Zoology, which I think we can all agree has not gone to waste in her career as a rugby official.
It's been seven years since Roche got her qualifications, yet many see Roche’s rise as meteoric. After plugging away at the local level, Roche is making her mark on the national stage and with Major League Rugby; the speed of Roche's progression in the last couple of years is well-deserved. She’s incredibly dedicated to being the best match official she can be, and she trains “like a beast”, Green says, and she is talented.
Roche now resides in Austin, Texas, thanks to fellow MLR (and Texas) referee Scott Green, who suggested she make the move four years ago. When she first relocated, Kat stayed with the Green family for a month while she settled in. It is where she developed an affinity for house plants – lots of them. Currently, best friend Green watches over her plants lovingly while Roche and her whistle jet-set. Roche asks me to extend her heartfelt appreciation to Green and I oblige, getting the impression that it's an inside joke between the two and wishing I could be part of a post-match celebration with these comedians.
After having worked incredibly hard the last couple of years to set herself up, 2022 is the year that Kat Roche is gifting to herself: she has saved up and has just resigned her job at Dick’s Sporting Goods so she can focus on refereeing unencumbered and be ready to roll at any time.
With her star rising and many potential opportunities ahead, Roche made a deal with herself to go for it and give it all she has. For, as she says, you never know when it comes to an end.
From the beginning the dream for Roche has been to ref at a Women’s World Cup, entirely a possibility at this point. At her current age of 27, this is the best time to be living her best life, Kat Roche and her whistle.
She’ll find out in May if she gets the call up to World Cup, making this Six Nations is a great opportunity for Roche to prove her mettle. “No pressure,” she jokes. “If these are the last games I ever referee, then I better enjoy myself as much as I can.” Roche’s self-effacing attitude is not only endearing, but I can tell it’s kept her both grounded and motivated.
Roche loves reffing for Major League Rugby. Last year as AR, she sent so much tape of herself to illustrate her readiness for more. “It must have paid off,” she says. Her first match in the middle was at Seattle Seawolves’ Starfire Stadium, where everyone knows the atmosphere is electric. “It was the best feeling,” Roche shares of the experience.
By the time Roche was head referee for MLR’s round five, it wasn’t considered as big a deal to everyone. Roche was ‘just the referee’. She wasn’t ‘the woman referee’. Her ultimate goal is that there not be that differential; “men” referees or “women” referees. Kat can't wait for the day it simply doesn’t make a difference.
Roche enjoys being a beacon to younger referees, especially girls with lofty aspirations. She hears fairly regularly from supporter Alex Schaefer who regularly likes and comments on Roche’s Instagram posts. Schaefer honours Roche by saying ”I want to be you when I grow up” whereas Kat is still saying she wants to be like Dana Teagarden, one of the ultimate trailblazers.
By way of example, she tells me a recent story that’s just too powerful not to share:
Prior to the San Diego Legion match, Roche went to watch a local game where there was a 16 year old referee named Piper. At the end of the match, Roche offered a word or two of advice, which Piper was totally willing to listen to. “She had a lot of raw talent and was super receptive to the feedback.”
Roche was impressed that Piper accepted her help despite not really knowing who the elder match official was. In the course of their conversation, Roche mentioned she was in town to officiate the San Diego match.
Piper was basically speechless, piecing it together. “I asked if she was going and she said ‘no I don’t think so’. But then after the game on Sunday she came up with her Dad and here she had come to the game, and was asking me questions about the positioning at the lineout. I can only assume she had gone home and said she really wanted to go to the game.
"It meant the world to me.”
It gave Roche a lot to reflect on, and she realized the responsibility she now has to be that beacon to younger referees, especially young women.
“It means a lot to me seeing young women and girls looking up to me. It’s very empowering to me because it’s no longer about me and what I can achieve. It’s how I can make it better and easier and no longer this big deal that there’s a woman in the MLR. It’ll be ‘oh there are just referees, a guy, a girl, whatever’. It means a lot to be part of that change.”
One day Piper and Alex will say that Kat Roche is their Dana Teagarden. And then Kat Roche will know that her job has been successfully done.
Karen L. Gasbarino, April, 2022
Rugby Hive Editor
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