International Women's Day – An opportunity to celebrate women in league
This week, the world celebrated International Women's Day – a day about speaking out and advocating for a more inclusive and gender-equal world. Creating and being part of that world is something I am extremely passionate about.
During this week I've been encouraged to see Australia celebrating so many women involved in sport. This varied involvement, from the boardroom to the grassroots is fundamental to ensuring that girls grow up knowing there is a place for them in sport, in whatever capacity they want to be involved.
I've also reflected on the role of women in rugby league. Over the past few years, there has been a shift in the conversation and there are several women that have become recognisable as women involved in the game. Think of Canterbury Bulldogs CEO Raelene Castle, Wests Tigers chairperson Marina Go, Australian Jillaroos captain Ruan Sims and Fox League's Yvonne Sampson who continues to act as a leader in media with her clever insights and knowledge about the game.
There are countless other women who are involved in our game in different capacities and who may not be as visible, but continue to demonstrate that rugby league is serious about making sure that everyone is welcome to be part of the family.
"The modern game is big business and there are many strong and capable women who have the talent to help drive the game forward. It's wonderful to see the NRL providing opportunities for these women in all areas."
Belinda Sleeman did not set out to be a pioneer – but through her drive to become an NRL referee, that's exactly what she's become.
Belinda started refereeing when she was a teenager because she wanted to stay part of the rugby league family after she could no longer play. Since then she has refereed in the Ipswich Rugby League Competition, the Intrust Super Cup, the National Youth Competition and in the NYC competition.
In 2014, Belinda made history when she became the first woman to officiate an NRL match; running the touchline during a Wests Tigers v Cronulla Sharks game.
Belinda is part of the Women in League Program Officials group and I'm looking forward to the day when she features in the NRL referees squad. My prediction is that we aren't far away.
"I've actually had people tell me they prefer to watch the women's game, which is amazing and something I never thought that I would hear."
Enter Kezie Apps. You may have heard of her or you may be like me and worship her.
It's been a remarkable rise for Kezie who only came back to rugby league at 22 after hearing the Jillaroos had won the 2013 World Cup. Like many other young women, Kezie had to stop playing footy because she wasn't allowed to play with the boys during her teenage years.
I'm so pleased she returned.
In 2016 Kezie was part of the NSW Blues team that broke a 17-year drought to win their first State of Origin series against Queensland, she proudly represented Australia as a Jillaroo and was named Dally M Female Player of the Year. She also become an advocate for women in league and made sure people knew how exciting, fast and physical the female version of the game is.
We often talk about dedication and Kezie has it in bucket loads. Kezie is from Bega and she and her mum are known to jump in the car every Saturday and drive four hours to and from Sydney just so Kezie can take the field for Helensburgh.
It's going to be another big year for Kezie and her Jillaroos teammates as they look to defend their World Cup title in November. I can't wait to be in the grandstands cheering on these talented women and have no doubt I'll be cheering a Kezie Apps try or two.
"From the fans and female players to executives and broadcasters, women in league are more involved today than ever before and I think the game is better for it."
When it comes to women in media, rugby league leads the way through women like Yvonne Sampson, Lara Pitt, Erin Molan and Megan Barnard.
Another outstanding example of a woman in media is Hannah Hollis who you may know from the popular League Nation Live program on NITV which she starred in alongside Justin Hodges, Nathan Appo, Jodan Perry and Aaron Fa'aoso.
Hannah is now part of League Life on Fox League with Yvonne, Lara, Tara Rushton and Jessica Yates.
So many people have described this show as 'refreshing' – I just think it's about time that the gender that makes up half the population also has the opportunity to present and debate their positions on the most topical and interesting stories in rugby league.
Hannah is an up and comer and I look forward to enjoying her coverage for years to come.
"Don't worry too much about other people's judgement or expectation - have the self-belief to be whoever you want."
Fourteen teams. 28 games. 5 weeks. This year's Rugby League World Cup will see the best rugby league players in the world compete to be crowned champions in the pinnacle event in international rugby league.
Maria Sykes is the Chief Operating Officer of the Rugby League World Cup.
Maria's earliest memories of rugby league are from Brookvale Oval 10 years ago, when her Manly supporting mate promised her a sure-fire taste of victory when the Sea Eagles played the Sharks. After an incredibly physical and drama-packed game, Cronulla won and that particular mate never invited Maria to the footy again. But Maria's involvement in footy continued.
From there, she has done consultancy work for the NRL and now finds herself part of the lead-up to one of the biggest sporting events on the calendar.
According to Maria, this year's Women's World Cup is a significant milestone for rugby league and is an important moment in the history of the women's game because it's the first time the Women's World Cup has been played as a stand-alone event concurrent with the men's tournament.
It's another example of how things are changing when it comes to opportunities for women to play rugby league and while we don't have a female competition of our own yet, we are well on our way.
Be Bold for Change
And while we're celebrating diversity, on Saturday, March 4 a group of NRL representatives showed their #prideinleague as they danced their way through Sydney on the NRL Mardi Gras float.
For rugby league to continue to grow it needs to be diverse and inclusive.
I want my game to be a game that welcomes everyone. It doesn't matter what gender you identify with, whether you were born in Australia or overseas or whether you are rich or poor – there is a place in the rugby league family for everyone.
We must never forget the opportunity our game has to be a powerful voice for change in the society in which we live. I encourage you all to take a moment to celebrate the women that make rugby league such a special game and to continue to #BeBoldForChange