Sims at the heart of women's revolution
Every movement needs a strong leader.
Women's rugby league is in the healthiest position it's ever been and central to it all is Jillaroos and NSW skipper Ruan Sims.
The first female player to sign a playing contract with an NRL club late in 2016, the Sharks forward will lead NSW in the annual Interstate Challenge at WIN Stadium on Sunday.
NSWRL CEO David Trodden told NRL.com he could think of no one better to captain the state and guide the women's game forward.
"Ruan has a presence that transcends the women's game," Trodden said. "She's the leader of the game, she's a powerful advocate for the sport, a great role model."
In another first the NSW women's side will be paid for their services in 2017, a historic step forward especially given the wider context of the women's game.
It was less than five years ago that the state's best weren't provided with adequate accommodation while in camp, had no sports science support and were missing small touches like having their names printed on the backs of their jerseys.
To receive the same level of preparation as their male counterparts while in camp as well as being paid for their time shows just how far things have progressed in a short space of time, the focus for the NSWRL simply righting some wrongs of the past according to Trodden.
After being first told of the new arrangement "a couple of months ago", Sims found it hard to contain her excitement. Thankful of the support from the governing body and sponsor Harvey Norman, the NSW skipper said coach Ben Cross and performance programs manager Jamie Feeney had fought hard for this latest milestone.
"To their credit they created this contract for us because they recognised we were having to give more and we were almost demanding it with the level of football we were playing," Sims told NRL.com.
"It was the next logical step and those guys are helping to usher in that professional era into the Interstate game."
The NSW leader shares special a bond with fellow Jillaroos "'82 babies" Steph Hancock, Heather Ballinger and Renae Kunst, and while Queensland front-rower Hancock is likely to step down at the end of the year it will come as a relief to many that Sims has no immediate plans to retire.
Instead, she's aiming to be part of another first and claims a more professional approach has allowed her to continue playing past her 35th birthday.
"I'd love to be around for the first professional women's NRL competition that rolls around," Sims said. "If it's within the next couple of years I'll definitely be there. If it's three years I'll push it, I'll make sure I get there.
"Being with the Sharks this year has been fantastic, they've provided me with heaps of medical staff and access to medical things I never would've had access to before. It's been very helpful for me physically and for my football itself, I feel like I'm a better footballer already."
"She's the leader of the game, she's a powerful advocate for the sport, a great role model."
NSWRL CEO David Trodden on Ruan Sims
While it's not clear when the first professional nation-wide women's competition will commence, preparation is well underway with pathways established to grow the player base. Previously girls would play until under-12s, with no set path to an open age women's side. An elite girl's under-18s competition has been formed, to be joined by under-16s in 2018.
For Trodden, the focus is on forming a viable competition once the foundations are in place at the junior level.
"The answer for me is building the base and hopefully that base in three-to-five years gives us a really powerful framework for a sustainable women's professional competition that just doesn't go for four-to-six weeks, but goes for a full season," Trodden explained.
"Once we've got that base, that's when we'll have a sustainable professional women's competition."
What then for the future of the Interstate Challenge? While Trodden believes the format won't expand to three games next season, he's confident it will take a more prominent place on the rugby league calendar.
"I think there's a realistic prospect of the one game being part of the Origin program next year," Trodden said.
"I see a lot more alignment between the women's Interstate and men's Origin game."
As the game's elite women flourish, Sims hopes a three-game series isn't too far away – "just like the men's, it would be an amazing spectacle to watch" – and she'll do everything in her power to take advantage of the raft of new opportunities that present themselves in the coming months and years.
Just as inspirational on the field as she is away from it, the next generation of girls will have a lot to thank Ruan Sims for.