'The Beast' voted NRL's 'Favourite Son'
He is respected as "The Beast" on the field, but giant Warriors winger Manu Vatuvei's golden smile and compassion off the field have won him the hearts of rugby league fans who have today voted him the game's Harvey Norman Women in League "Favourite Son".
Vatuvei was honoured for his "efforts and attitude that inspire women to be part of the rugby league family at all levels".
The award was presented to Vatuvei at the launch of the 2104 Harvey Norman Women in League Round before more than 230 guests at Sydney's Museum of Contemporary Art.
NRL Chief Executive Dave Smith also announced that there will be a women's Test between Australia and New Zealand, as the curtain-raiser to the Australia versus Samoa Test at the Four Nations Tournament in Wollongong in November.
"This will be a re-match between the best two women's teams in the world … the teams which fought out the World Cup final last year," he said.
Mr Smith said his vision is to ensure women and girls feel included and engaged in every aspect of the rugby league family.
He said Vatuvei embodied this vision through his inspirational work on and off the field.
Vatuvei's wife, Jen, was at the announcement which sees him join a prestigious list of previous Favourite Son award winners: Hazem El Masri (2009), Nathan Hindmarsh (2010), today's MC Petero Civoniceva (2011), Luke Burt (2012) and Anthony Minichiello (2013).
In a career spanning 11 years, Vatuvei will play his 180th NRL game this weekend, and with 125 career tries he has been the Warriors' top or equal top tryscorer for the past eight seasons. He has also played 24 Tests for New Zealand and two All Stars matches.
"This is an awesome award, not just for me personally but most of all for my club and my family," said Vatuvei.
"I am very humbled by this. I would like to recognise and thank my fans, team-mates, friends and family for their unbelievable support in voting for me.
"There is only one thing I like more than scoring tries for my team – and that is scoring one for my Mum.
"She has played such an important part in my career and in my life so I am really proud to be named Favourite Son."
Mr Smith said the role of women in the game had grown substantially in the past 12 months – but there was still a long way to go.
"We need to change the entire culture within the game to the point where it is normal to have a female in any role," he said.
"So, in future, we will see more mums and daughters participation, not just as players but as game officials, coaches and club administrators.
"We must have more women at the top if we are to deliver effective leadership.
"And we must have more women in every other aspect of our game if we are to have wider appeal – that means boards, senior executive roles, in our clubs and state leagues.
"And that will be a focus of the NRL over the next 12 months."
Last week the NRL announced that more than 130 women this month will take part in the NRL's inaugural Wellbeing and Balance leadership workshop series which marks the start of an ongoing program by the NRL to invest in women and girls involved in the game.
Prior to today's lunch, three workshops have already been held in Western Sydney (May 5), Wollongong NSW (May 7) and Hunter Valley NSW (May 9), with a fourth to be conducted at the Sunshine Coast QLD next week (May 20).
The workshops mark a change of direction for the eighth annual Harvey Norman Women in League Round at a time when the influence of women in rugby league is greater than ever.
Player registrations have increased 66 per cent in the past 12 months (from 4741 in 2013 to 7216 in 2014). And women's involvement at all levels continues to grow from grassroots, where 40 per cent of club positions are held by women, to the NRL.
At the same time, the profile of women in rugby league has also continued to rise, with significant milestones in the past 12 months including: appointments such as Raelene Castle as Bulldogs CEO, Corene Strauss as Men of League CEO, Rebecca Frizelle as Titans Board Chair and Linda Burney as ARL Indigenous Council Chair; the Jillaroos winning the Women's Rugby League World Cup for the first time, and the recent women's match played as a curtain-raiser to the Test; and Kasey Badger and Belinda Sleeman becoming the first female referees to be included in the full-time elite match officials squad.
World Cup-winning Jillaroos Sam Hammond and Ruan Sims were among the guests at today's lunch to celebrate the role of women in the game, along with Rugby League Ambassadors Nathan Hindmarsh, Nathan Cayless and Mario Fenech, Harvey Norman Chief Executive Katie Page, Bulldogs CEO Raelene Castle, Men of League CEO Corene Strauss, Broncos Director Katie Bickford, NRL's Welfare and Education Committee Professor Catharine Lumby, Referee Kasey Badger and Junior Rugby League representatives.
NRL clubs and grassroots clubs are supporting the Women in League Round initiative through various activities, including special edition purple socks, pink jerseys and fundraising events for a variety of charities.
For more information on the Harvey Norman Women in League Round please visit www.nrl.com/womeninleague.