NRL's Women in League is the benchmark in sport
Next year we celebrate the 10th Anniversary of the Harvey Norman Women in League Round. Milestones are brilliant opportunities to challenge yourself to reflect on why you started, what is possible and how we ensure Women in League continues to be the standard bearer program for Australian sport.
When I think of Women in League and where we started, I think of Margaret Gordon and the Outback Challenge in Bourke and Julie Luke, CEO of Western Suburbs Junior Rugby League. These two women are the best possible examples of women in our game who are the foundations of rugby league at the grassroots. Without them, and the thousands of other women who silently nurture the players at the school and junior club level, we wouldn't have the game today as we know it.
For 10 years, Margaret has staged the Outback Challenge for 200 kids from the far Western NSW region. Margaret came home to Bourke for six months and has stayed for 15 years. The Challenge enables children from rural and isolated areas the opportunity to participate in a rugby league event.
The Outback Challenge started as a boys only competition (with the exception of the girls who filled spots for smaller schools), but then I met Margaret at a Women in League dinner in Dubbo. Together we were able to create a girls competition. Over 10 years, 2,000 kids have enjoyed the thrill of an amazing day of rugby league inspired by their rugby league heroes. However, the likes of Margaret Gordon demonstrate that heroism doesn't only come to life on the field.
Julie Luke, where do I start with a woman who has been at the heart of rugby league in its true heartland - the Western suburbs of Sydney for over 30 years. Tens of thousands of junior players have benefitted from Julie's tireless efforts and peerless experience. She oversees rugby league's largest nursery for the current and future stars of the NRL with responsibility for the operations and success of 14 local clubs and their 3,000 registered players - every year. There should be a special national jersey designed for people like Julie, but she doesn't seek acclaim or accolade.
Women in League started with women at the grassroots and we must ensure that these women remain the cornerstone of all future Women in League plans and development.
At the almost 10 year mark, it is timely to be a part of the evolution of Women in League to include the elite level of the game - the Australian Jillaroos.
In April this year, Harvey Norman signed on as the first corporate partner ever of the Australian Women's Rugby League - the Australian Jillaroos. These women are elite athletes who lay claim to the title of current Women's Rugby League World champions.
You only had to watch them as they triumphed over the New Zealand Kiwi Ferns in Brisbane last week to see why the game was mesmerising and a top rating sport - the Sydney audience was more than double the average Sydney free-to-air audience for AFL and higher than a regular A-League audience. Additionally the total NSW audience was 55 per cent higher than AFL and 50 per cent higher than A-League. Captain Stephanie Hancock's cool leadership throughout and Mahalia Murphy's hat trick in her debut game for the Jillaroos meant you couldn't look away.
2015 is the year where participation takes centre stage in the Harvey Norman Women in League round. Let's celebrate Karyn Murphy, the former Jillaroos captain, who is now assistant coach; Kasey Badger and Belinda Sleeman who are both members of the NRL's emerging referees squad and the appointment of Jillaroos Ruan Sims, Renae Kunst and Tallisha Harden as NRL One Community Ambassadors.
Women in League is now truly whole of game. 2016 and the 10 Year Anniversary presents enormous opportunity and challenge - we must ensure Women in League remains the benchmark and standard by which all other sports are measured.
Katie Page is the Chief Executive Officer of Harvey Norman