This week the National Rugby League (NRL) celebrates 10 years of Harvey Norman Women in League Round. This round presents an opportunity for everyone in the rugby league family to celebrate the role that women play in and around the game.
I have been a passionate rugby league supporter for many years, particularly my team the Parramatta Eels. Often when I tell people that I am a passionate rugby league fan, I am met with surprised looks and questions like “how could a girl like you possibly like rugby league?”
As a rugby league fan this is always a challenge – working out how to respond to questions about how I could possibly support a game that people perceive has demonstrated that women are “unwelcome” within its ranks.
Rugby league is no stranger to controversy off the field. In light of scandals involving high profile players, the key message here is that this is not a rugby league problem. Our sports are a reflection of our society and that as long as issues of violence, gender inequality and sexism continue to exist in our societies, they will continue to be reflected in our sports. This does not mean that rugby league should bury its head in the sand – quite the opposite. The game has a responsibility to take a strong stance when it comes to important social issues, but the reputation of the few should not tarnish the actions of the many.
The way I respond to criticisms about the involvement of women in the game is to prove people wrong.
Over the last couple of years, there are some women that have become increasingly recognisable as women involved in rugby league. For example, Raelene Castle has been Chief Executive Officer at the Canterbury Bulldogs since 2013 and earlier this year extended her contract for an additional 2 years. Marina Go is Chairperson at the Wests Tigers and, like Raelene, is a proud and fierce advocate encouraging women to get involved. Yvonne Sampson made history earlier this year when she anchored State of Origin and became the first female broadcaster to anchor a major sporting event in Australia.
Whilst these women are increasingly visible, I would like to take the opportunity during Women in League round to introduce you to another 5 women involved in rugby league which will demonstrate to you the breadth of female involvement in the game.
1. Kasey Badger – Current NRL referee
Up to age 12, Kasey played rugby league, but then had to stop playing as there were no pathways for girls to continue. She decided that refereeing might be a way that she could continue to participate in the game she loved so much.
Flash forward to today and Kasey is one of 2 women to be included in the NRL’s Referee Elite Performance Unit (along with Belinda Sleeman) and became just the second female to officiate a first grade game of rugby league in 2015.
On the weekends you can often spot Kasey running up and down the touchlines officiating. Kasey jokes that one of her biggest challenges is working out which boots to wear with the referee’s jersey she is wearing that weekend (there are currently 3 variations). With over 20 pairs of boots, Kasey is spoiled for choice.
2. Helen Wood-Grant – Chairperson at the Men of League Foundation
Before I introduce you to Helen, I should firstly introduce the Men of League Foundation.
The Men of League Foundation is an organisation established to assist the men, women and children in the rugby league family who have fallen on hard times. There is a common misperception that the Men of League Foundation is just for retired footballers, but Helen Wood-Grant, current Chairperson is working hard with her board to ensure that this message begins to change. Instead, the message is increasingly being shared that the rugby league family is an inclusive one and that the Men of League Foundation is there to support each and every member of that growing family.
3. Catherine Harris – Member of the Australian Rugby League Commission
Catherine Harris is currently the only woman on the Australian Rugby League Commission and the woman who boldly declared that she wanted to see a woman on the board of every NRL club by 2014. We’re not there yet, but part of progress is recognising how far we have come and how much work is left to do. With several clubs boasting female board members including the Brisbane Broncos, Canberra Raiders, Wests Tigers, Gold Coast Titans and New Zealand Warriors, we are on our way. Let’s keep going.
4. Ruan Sims – Captain of the Jillaroos
Current captain of the Australian Jillaroos, Ruan Sims grew up in a household that loves rugby league. With brothers Korbin Sims and Tariq Sims (both representative footballers who play for the Newcastle Knights and St George Illawarra Dragons, respectively) Friday night in the Sims household was known as ‘Friday Fight Night’. Mum would move the couches and it was every person for themselves. No wonder Ruan grew up to become a pioneer in the game of rugby league for women.
This year has been momentous for the women’s game. Earlier this year, the Jillaroos Test Match against the Kiwi Ferns was billed as a double-header with the Australian Kangaroos Test Match and was televised on Channel 9. Jetstar joined Harvey Norman as a sponsor of the team. The Cronulla Sharks have announced that they will be forming a nines team next year, leading the push to establish a women’s competition and names like Ruan Sims, Kezie Apps and Maddie Studdon are becoming more recognisable. Watch this space.
5. Anita Hagarty – Chairperson at Touch Football Australia
In 2013, the NRL announced a strategic partnership with Touch Football Australia which was recognised as the biggest boost to participation and grass roots development of each game in their respective histories.
Touch football has an incredible story when it comes to participation, with almost 50% of registered players being women and girls.
Anita has been involved with Touch Football for over 30 years in various capacities, including as a coach, player, referee and executive member of the team. Anita served on the Board of Queensland Touch from 2009-2012 and in 2012 she was elected to the Touch Football Australia Board where she is currently the Chairperson.
As a game, what we need to continue to do is to ensure that these women and countless others are visible. Traditionally, when people have thought about the NRL, the only women they can think of associated with the game are cheerleaders and mums who either work in the canteen or cheer their sons on from the sidelines. These woman are an integral part of the rugby league family, but we need to celebrate all the women who contribute to rugby league in a positive way and encourage more women to put their hands up and be brave enough to say “I want to be involved”.
My hope? That in 10 years we won’t need to celebrate Women in League round because the female presence in and around the game has become commonplace. We’re not there yet, but we are well on our way.