Another massive step for women's game
The inclusion of a Women's Player of the Year award at the Dally M Medal night is yet another massive step forward for the women's game.
National skipper Steph Hancock along with teammates Karina Brown, Simaima Taufa and medal winner for the best women's player Jenni-Sue Hoepper strode down the same red carpet as the men's players on Tuesday night at The Star and Hancock said each was honoured to be included.
"Especially to be in here with the boys, it's a massive step forward for women's footy," Hancock told NRL.com.
"To be recognised from the NRL with having an award is something I didn't think would happen in my time of playing footy."
It has been a big year for the women's sport, with the Aussies facing off against the Kiwi Ferns in the pre-season Auckland Nines and a Women's All Stars v Indigenous All Stars match played as a curtain raiser to the corresponding men's fixture in the pre-season.
While torrential rain eventually put paid to a scheduled Test between the Jillaroos and Kiwi Ferns as a curtain raiser to the men's Test back in Representative Round (both fixtures were rescheduled but played on different days) the women's Test was eventually replayed on free-to-air TV via Channel Nine in a first for the women's game while the interstate match was live-streamed on NRL.com.
Hoepper – who is also a development officer for the NRL up in her native north Queensland working with young boys and girls – has seen first-hand the growth in the game both in her on-field role as a Jillaroo as well as her work off the field.
"Working in the game, I've seen a lot of it. There's so much talent out there and there's a lot that love the game," Hoepper told NRL.com.
"It's building up, it's getting bigger and better and I'm privileged to be a part of it.
"I'm a Cairns girl, I'm a proud north Queenslander, I'm currently located in Townsville. Being there and being able to provide teaching to all the kids there, both boys and girls about the game, I couldn't be more honoured to have that opportunity.
"I've played since I was 10 years old and worked my way up, moved to Brisbane and got an opportunity and since then I've loved it. Now I'm playing for Australia I want to stay in there for a long time and do my country proud and just be a role model for all the younger girls coming through."
Speaking straight after accepting her award on stage at The Star, Hoepper was both shocked and honoured to be the inaugural winner.
"I can't really explain how honoured I am to get this award, for it to be the first time," she said.
"My heart's still beating, it's still sinking in but to be honest I'm really feeling it for all the girls, I feel like every single girl that has been a part of the game and I owe it to them as well."
The increase in the number of women players had led to an increase in the quality of the sport which Hoepper believes is both exciting and a challenge.
"As it goes on we're getting more girls coming to our camps. As much as it can be intimidating to have to work even harder that's the way it should be," she said.
"At the end of the day the best players should be running on that field and I feel like giving that opportunity to every girl in Australia is a big thing and it's getting there."
While Hoepper is just beginning her international career, 33-year-old Hancock is one of a small group of senior players who are getting ready to pass on the baton to the new brigade. Hancock hopes to make it to a fourth and final World Cup in 2017 before hanging up the boots but added the future of the side is in good hands.
"I'm hoping to play 2017 so one more World Cup, that'll be four, that's plenty. Then I'll hang the boots up and let all the young kids have a go," she said.
"People like [fullback] Sammy Hammond – if she just lets her leg heal instead of keeping coming back and breaking it! You've got kids like the Carklis kids [18-year-old North Stradbroke Island twins Casey and Amy], Maddie Studdon, Kezie Apps, you've got a million and they're all young kids.
"There's only five of us old girls left – Renae Kunst, Ruan Sims, Heather Ballinger, myself and good old 'Firebird' [Deanna Turner], we're all 33 years old. We're looking at two more years then giving it away but we've got so much potential coming through, it's great."
Like the men's players, the Jillaroos have a short off season now before returning to pre season training to get ready for their second Auckland Nines tournament.
"We have a camp right at the end of November for the Nines so there's a squad of about 25 girls and then we'll start doing our training for the Nines," Hancock said.
"At least this year we know what to expect! After that we've got the All Stars and the Test match so it's going to be another big year ahead of the World Cup in 2017."