Lee joins elite panel in another first
Gabriel Lee Wing-yi had an extra spring in her step this weekend as she refereed matches in front of a 40,000 crowd.
Being the woman with the whistle is nothing new for Hong Kong's leading female referee - she has already been in charge of men's 15-a-side internationals - but this time she took the field after hearing she had been selected for the IRB's first-ever women's referee panel. That honour followed her impressive display in charge at the Women's Rugby World Cup last year.
Lee, 29, was one of eight selected for the panel, which will work to improve standards and preparation ahead of the World Cup Sevens in 2013, the Women's World Cup in 2014 and the sevens tournaments at the 2016 Olympics.
'It's really good for Hong Kong rugby and Asian rugby that we're qualified to be on the panel and I'm really pleased to be a part of it,' said Lee as she took a breather after sprinting up and down the touchline in the England-Russia Cup quarter-final.
'I hope it will inspire more female referees in Hong Kong, and for me personally it's great to travel around, referee better-quality games and improve my standard. I'll still have to do my day job,' added the immigration officer, 'but they'll probably give me more appointments overseas, not just in Asia.'
Lee is a Hong Kong Sevens regular, but still loves the experience. 'This is my fourth time but it's still as exciting as ever. Every year has got something different about it. It's been pretty good, there have been some really exciting games.'
The new panel gives referees access to IRB fitness, performance analysis and mentoring programmes, mirroring the system used for their male counterparts. For Lee, who officiated at the 2009 Sevens World Cup as well as last year's Women's World Cup, it should open a path to officiating at more high-profile tournaments - and men's matches.
Lee has been in charge of the men twice at test level - Mongolia against Kyrgyzstan in 2009 and Laos v Cambodia in 2010. The sight of the petite 165cm Lee keeping the peace amid the hulking behemoths might look incongruous to some of rugby's conservative old guard, but she insists she has never had a problem.
'I think players don't see the ref as female or male. If you're consistent and ref well they will respect you,' said Lee, a former Hong Kong international player, who began officiating in 2005 after an initiative by the HKRFU to produce more female referees. 'But the speed is a problem - the men are really fast. I try to change my angle sometimes when refereeing men to cope.'
After the Sevens, the former DeA Tigers full-back will be targeting a place at the sevens and women's World Cups, but she is in no doubt about the top priority: 'My main target is the Olympics, I want to be part of that. I guess I've got a good chance now and I'll keep my fingers crossed.'