I had no idea Rugby was going to take me all around the world – Julianne Zussman excited for Tokyo 2020 showing

Former Canada international talks Tokyo 2020, how she became a Rugby referee and why you should be brave enough to try it!

With all eyes on the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, Canada’s Julianne Zussman is just happy to be back on the pitch.

BC-based Zussman is one of 22 match officials selected to take charge of the men’s and women’s Rugby 7s competitions in Japan.

The Victoria resident holds a rich Rugby resume, having represented Canada at both XVs and 7s formats for over a decade before her retirement from playing in 2018. She appeared at three Rugby World Cups, winning the runners-up medal in 2014, and scored 18 tries in her 44 Tests for Canada. The veteran also appeared in two rounds of the inaugural 2012-13 HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series.

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Julianne Zussman

I finally found the game that I was meant to play

In 2019, Zussman became the first Canadian Test player to referee at international level on the HSBC Sevens Series. This week, she will be walking out at Tokyo Stadium as an Olympic official.

“I can’t wait to be back in the tunnel, do the coin toss and feel the energy of the teams, run out onto the field and blow my whistle and just have a run around and have a good time,” Zussman told BC Rugby ahead of leaving for Tokyo.

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Rugby has taken Zussman all over the world since she first picked up a ball in Grade 9 at high school in Ottawa. The McGill University graduate admitted she had no idea what kind of journey she was starting when she first experienced the sport.

“I was just happy to be on a team with my best friends,” Zussman said. “I had no idea that rugby was going to take me all around the world, or that I would get to play in some incredible stadiums and meet some amazing people and have those life changing experiences.

“I remember the first time I threw a dummy in a two versus one, that feeling of breaking the line was the greatest feeling in the world at that age. That was in Grade 9 in high school in Ottawa. I loved the sense of belonging that came with being part of a team. It really is the ultimate team sport.

“It combined all the different parts of being an athlete that I loved. You had to be smart, fast, strong. You needed to be a good team-mate. I thought I’d finally found the game that I was meant to play.”

After relocating to BC, Zussman played for Castaway Wanderers and Westshore FC (formerly Velox Valhallians RFC) on Vancouver Island. Now an assistant coach of the Victoria Vikings women’s rugby team at the University of Victoria, Zussman knows the importance of Rugby to the communities of BC.

“We’re so lucky in BC that we get to play Rugby all year around. It’s a natural home for Rugby in Canada, where people just gravitate to. As a result, we have access to an incredible number of resources.” Julianne Zussman

Zussman added: “The community is really behind the game, so even people who don’t necessarily know rugby – they know that it has a home in BC. With that, we get a ton of support from the community and a really long and fruitful season.”

Julianne Zussman

Refereeing opened up a new world of possibilities

After finishing her playing career, Zussman was encouraged to take up officiating. At first, she was reluctant to pick up the whistle, and it was not until her first tournament that Zussman fell in love with another side of our sport.

“Refereeing has its own community and its own culture within the rugby community,” Zussman said. “Seeing how incredible the people are, how hard they work and how dedicated they are to the craft. It opened a new world of possibilities.

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“I had no clue where refereeing would take me. I was just really attracted to the challenge. Having spent so much time around rugby and playing rugby, I was surprised by how hard it was. That was really what I found intriguing. You’re never going to have the perfect game as a referee, but you’re always going to chase it.”

Zussman completed her World Rugby Level 1 Officiating Course while she was still playing on Canada’s 7s team. But it took retirement from playing for her to finally give refereeing a go.

“For me, it’s one thing to take the course but another to get out there and try it,” explained Zussman, who says playing both XVs and 7s formats helped develop her officiating skills.

“I highly recommend people just jump in. If you want to give it a go, you need to take your basic course at the same time, but the most important thing is getting out onto the field and trying, knowing you’re not going to be perfect first time out. Be brave enough to try.”

Julianne Zussman