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Call it embarrassing, call it ignorant, call it naive, call it what you will, but growing up in country New South Wales, I didn’t even know another football code existed.

Rugby league was everything.

All my friends at school played it, when you talked “footy” in Orange there was only one code you were referring to, and there was a real buzz about town when that weekend in the draw would creep around when it was time for cross-town rivals Hawks and Cyms to clash.

We’d all be there on a cold, brutal afternoon at Wade Park, rugged up in the stands or beeping our horns with every try from within the heated car, which you can park all around the field.

I was in a rugby league bubble.

My grandma grew up in Adelaide and watched this sport called ‘voofool’ religiously. I used to feel sorry for her, how embarrassing, I used to think, she’s not watching the right football. My Dad, on the other hand, never quite recovered from the Western Suburbs Balmain merge – ask him to this day who he supports, he’ll tell you Wests…never Tigers and not even Wests Tigers.

I got the biggest shock too when I was shipped off to boarding school in Sydney as a teenager. First week I was invited to the footy, they used the word “rugby” but I just assumed in Sydney you just dropped the “league”.

It’s no surprise then I love this game.

I love even more the fact that female involvement in the code is growing. We’re not just seen as great to have around to help out in the ladies auxillary, but now we’re administrators, referees, physios, reporters, commentators, coaches and more importantly, players. But don’t get me wrong…we still have a long way to go.

On paper the stats look good this year, a 20% rise in female participation and female club membership increasing by 20,000 to now account for 41% of all members. That’s great, but it’s the game’s image we still need to work at, improve and then protect.

Indiscretions against women in the game’s past haven’t helped the game’s image with females, neither has out of date notions that only men can take an active interest in rugby league, that, to be a true fan, you have to have male genitalia first.

It’s funny, just the other day I was sitting at a café reading the sport section of the paper. The guy next to me almost fell off his chair as I quietly read the reaction from Origin, he made some remark about girls reading the backpages. I don’t know why it seemed so alien to him, even my husband sacrifices the sport section to me first on a Sunday morning, and my friends don’t blink an eyelid when I re-arrange plans in order to watch the footy or receive score updates on my phone for those events I can’t get out of. It’s the same when someone asks me what I do for work, occasionally I still get the question “So, do you really like sport?” I’m sure they wouldn’t ask a chef if he likes food, or an author if they like reading books. But to like sport and especially NRL, there are people out there who strictly view it as a male-only domain. The tides, though, are well and truly changing as female involvement in all aspects of the game grows.

There was something about a story I did years ago while working in regional television which struck a chord with me. It was a report on the first Girls in League development day. I travelled out to Albion Park Sporting complex where there were hundreds of girls from across the region playing their first game of Rugby League. Schoolgirls of all shapes, sizes, races, religions and socio-backgrounds were there playing in teams against each other. Some were ultra-competitive with Billy Slater like moves, others looked like they were playing a sad case of primary school hot potato. But all around there were high-fives, smiles, laughs and cheers for each other.

It was an incredibly uplifting atmosphere. The game there was stripped of its headlines, club politics and male domination, it was in its raw basic form and these girls were loving every moment of it. Interviewing the girls some wanted a regional competition and even talked of creating a school team, others had their Dad sign their permission forms out of fear of what their mums would say. But all enjoyed the experience and came away with a really positive view of the game.

More and more new generations of girls are being introduced to our beloved game and great in roads are being made by the ARL Commission to attract and harness that interest. We need to protect it and not let it be sucked out of them because of an out-dated stereotype that the game’s only for male eyes. Girls have to continue to be shown that they can take part in any aspect of the game, whether they want to play casually or become a jillaroo, referee a match, or become the ultimate armchair commentator, be a fan or a future commissioner. There’s room for more women to have an impact on the game and its future.

This round isn’t just about photo shoots with mums, fancy lunches and players wearing pink uniforms. It’s the recognition that women do play a role in the game and more women can get involved in the game. It’s about celebrating the achievements and growth of women in league while at the same time encouraging those in the game to push even harder to break new barriers.

So while we all think it’s great that we have a female commissioner, I challenge you this week to ask, why just one? While it’s fantastic more women are becoming referees, why is it we still don’t have them in pink in the NRL? The Jillaroos have had much success, but why have we not heard about it? Women in League are growing in numbers, so why is it strange to see one reading about Origin in a paper in a café?

Sam Squiers is a Sky News Sports Reporter and long time Orange Hawks fan.

Follow Sam Squiers on twitter: @SamSquiersSky

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National Rugby League respects and honours the Traditional Custodians of the land and pay our respects to their Elders past, present and future. We acknowledge the stories, traditions and living cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on the lands we meet, gather and play on.

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