Following on from playing in front of a massive crowd at the Auckland Nines, Jillaroos Sam Hammond and Jenni-Sue Hoepper say the profile of the women's game has come on in leaps and bounds.
First Victorian to represent Australian Women's All Stars
Both players will line up for a curtain-raiser to the Indigenous All Stars v NRL All Stars game at Cbus Super Stadium on Friday night; Hammond for the Women's All Stars and Hoepper for the Indigenous side.
Both women also currently work for the NRL in game development, Hammond in Sydney and Hoepper in Townsville.
Hammond told NRL.com Auckland had been a "unique" experience with both the huge crowd and the players loving the atmosphere of the weekend.
"We've played in some big stadiums of late, maybe a couple of thousand but nowhere near 40,000 and I think we all thrived on it," she said.
You can stream the Women's game live on NRL.com. Find out the details here.
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There has been a definite and noticeable increase in the profile of the women's game recently, Hammond added.
"There are girls that have been a part of this squad or team for over 15 years and girls that have been here five months and no matter how long we've been here we all sense a bit of a change every time we come into a new camp," she said.
"There's always something that we're taking a step forward with, whether it's where we're staying or how we're getting there or where we're going to dinner or the equipment we get, there's always something we're moving forward with which is really good and very motivating for the girls."
Hammond's role in development has given her an up-close look at the increasing profile of the women's game.
"Going back eight months [to when I started] if I'd asked a class if anyone knew who the Jillaroos were you probably wouldn't have anyone put their hand up," she said.
"You ask them now – maybe one or two at least and that's just in the bracket of eight months. Women's participation in the K-6 age group is really growing and in high schools as well."
Hoepper noted that the recent World Cup marked a shift to the first time the women's side had expenses paid for, and added strong support from high-profile men's players such as Greg Inglis provided an added boost.
"Winning the World Cup was a big step for Australian women's footy," Hoepper said.
"Even after the Auckland Nines, just this week has been real big with media and everyone has been talking about it and I think that's a big step as well. I think that's what we needed, too – it was entertaining, good, hard, tough footy. It was really close and it really showed Australia and New Zealand what women's rugby league is all about."
Like the men's Indigenous players, Hoepper is proud to represent her culture this weekend.
"This is my first year playing in the All Stars and I'm really excited and happy to represent where I come from and who I am. I can't wait to play," said Hoepper, who grew up in Cairns before moving to Brisbane to pursue both rugby league and study before moving to Townsville.
"Playing with the Jillaroos and then coming into the Indigenous team I had a feeling that it's so much more. It's in my blood. I'm really representing my roots and where I've come from in my family, my culture and heritage.
"It motivates those who have struggled in my family and what we had to go through in the past. It's a driving force to really know that this is the week or the weekend or the game where you go out there and represent your mob."
Hoepper said she'd like to see more women's games played throughout the year.
"Being in Brisbane they're quite lucky but I'm up in Townsville now and we don't have a competition there. I don't play a lot so I try to get as much game time when I can but yeah, it's difficult," said the 20-year-old.
Part of it is a case of developing more players from a young age, she said.
"A lot of the girls coming through in the school competitions they know there is a pathway for them and there's a goal they can reach in women's rugby league at the top level."
Hammond said when she first started playing rugby league at 18, starting a club in her local town of Helensburg in the Illawarra after a long time playing touch, she didn't even realise representative rugby league was an option for women.
"When I first started I had no idea there were any representative levels of women's rugby league, I just played for fun, something different, something to learn," said Hammond, whose try-scoring exploits had her once referred to as 'the female Billy Slater'.
An appearance at a New South Wales knockout competition attended by a former Dragons and Eels hooker proved a major stepping stone.
"[Mark] 'Piggy' Riddell was there and he came up to me and asked me if I would consider playing in the NSW team or train in the squad and I said I'd never even heard there was a NSW squad," said Hammond. "I still doubted my ability, [I thought] if there was a NSW team I wouldn't be good enough because I'd only been playing for two years.
"He said just come along so I trained with the girls for a while, from there I was selected in the Jillaroos squad and trained with those girls for a while, then All Stars so it's been awesome."
An alliance with Touch Football Australia has provided further avenues for growth, according to Hammond.
"Our alliance with touch football can really expose a lot of touchies to rugby league and I think the Nines tournament is also very good exposure for the girls who want to play because it's a very different dynamic to 13-a-side, there's a lot more one on one tackling, a lot more running – girls could opt for Nines as an introduction to the 13-a-side game."