Jillaroos join rugby league's frontline
They are the latest recruits in rugby league's battle to win the hearts and minds of Australia's sporting youth and the NRL's first female One Community ambassadors are already seeing an influx of girls who are attracted to rugby league.
Karyn Murphy, Ruan Sims, Renae Kunst and Tallisha Harden all fell in love with rugby league before they ever knew there was an opportunity to represent their country and are now taking their passion for the game into communities along the eastern seaboard.
Murphy captained the Jillaroos for 13 years before retiring with victory at the 2013 World Cup while Sims, Kunst and Harden were all members of the team that defeated the Kiwi Ferns in the curtain-raiser prior to the Anzac Test a fortnight ago.
As we celebrate Women in League Round this weekend the participation of females in rugby league has never been greater and all four are grateful for the chance to spread the rugby league message from the grassroots level all the way through to executive board rooms.
Sims joined the likes of surfing world champ Layne Beachley and former Australian cricketer Lisa Sthalekar at a 'Women on Boards' fundraiser in February and said it was a wonderful way to not only raise awareness of NRL community programs but also develop her own networking opportunities.
"It was at an executive level and there were a lot of high-powered women in the room – I did feel a little bit overwhelmed in a few stages but it's such a good opportunity to meet and mingle with a lot of different people and do a lot of work at various levels," Sims said.
"The reaction has been amazing and the support for women who are trying to do more things within their own sport or within their own area of business.
"The programs that the NRL have are things that I'm quite interested in myself; the health and well-being, physical fitness so I feel like I can actually contribute to getting more women involved or just people in general."
As a member of the Women's Indigenous All Stars team the past two years, Harden says her role as a One Community ambassador not only stretches across genders but also allows her to preach the inclusiveness of the game.
"I'm honoured to get to represent out in the community on behalf of the women's program and on behalf of the Indigenous population within the program," said Harden, who was only recently lured to rugby league having played Rugby Sevens previously.
"Rugby league can be played across both genders and it can be played extremely well and at a high level. We want to convey that it is a lifestyle choice, it is a healthy living choice and it can be played by absolutely everyone.
"It is gender inclusive, it's inclusive of all ages, backgrounds, culturally, whether you have played sport before or not it's a healthy choice that everyone can undertake."
Kunst has been working as a rugby league development officer out of Mackay for the past two years and has seen first-hand the change in attitudes towards women playing rugby league.
An under-14s age division will be added to the under-16s and under-18s at the state carnival in 2016 creating a continuous pathway for talented young women to develop their games at a level never previously before seen.
"The girls have to stop playing with the boys when they are 12 but they can continue on now which is always exciting," said Kunst, who oversaw a six-week competition for 170 girls in Mackay.
"In 10 years time the standard will be that much higher and at a level of a professional team because they've been able to play right through.
"We've got some talent coming through too and there are just more girls that want to play the game and when they do see that there is a Jillaroos team and you are a little bit out in the spotlight, kids get excited about that.
"There's something now for these girls to aim for and they are the future of the game. Things have slowly started to change in the last couple of years but it will probably be in the next five to six years that we will actually see the results of all that work.
"You're still convincing people every day, still convincing those old-school people who think women shouldn't be playing the game, but I think those opinions are slowly starting to change.
"People actually ask your opinion on things now. When I started in the game, they didn't want to know you, now you're getting phone calls asking your opinion on something so in a weird way that's acceptance."
Having first represented Australia back in 1999 Murphy has dedicated much of her life – not to mention holidays and finances – to rugby league and now that she is no longer playing is thrilled to maintain her involvement in the game.
"I wasn't too sure what I could offer the game once I did finish but this is definitely a way in which I can give back," said Murphy, whose full-time job is in the police force.
"Just to let them know it's possible and what you can achieve by playing and the different pathways coming through right through to the top level.
"We all believe it's the number one sport that you can play so hopefully [we can] push that side of it, not lose them to other sports and let them know how many great friends you meet along the way."