The world celebrated International Women’s Day on Thursday and when it comes to rugby league, it always reminds me just how much we have to celebrate in our game.
It's a day which gives men and women the opportunity to celebrate the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women, share key social messages about diversity and inclusion and recognise the importance of continuing to press for a more gender-equal world.
Last year was one I will never forget. It was the year the Australian Jillaroos won the World Cup. A year in which Yvonne Sampson, Lara Pitt, Hannah Hollis and Jessica Yates had the opportunity to host the Dally M Awards. The NRL also announced a women’s competition would launch and female participation in the game increased by a whopping 37 per cent.
When these storylines are added to a narrative which includes women excelling as referees like Belinda Sleeman and Kasey Badger, women in media like Erin Molan and Meagan Barnard, women in positions of governance like Marina Go, Lynne Anderson and Helen Wood-Grant and women who play rugby league like Ruan Sims, Kezie Apps and Maddie Studdon, it becomes very obvious to me women are a welcome and integral part of the rugby league family.
Women are represented in every part of the league family, even if they are not as visible as some of those I have just mentioned - their roles as administrators, volunteers, advocates, members and fans are equally important and certainly worth celebrating.
Here are three women who deserve even more credit than they get.
Yvette Downey – Head of Competitions at NSWRL
"It is extremely important for females to be able to choose to play and participate in whatever sport they want."
When I told Yvette I wanted to include her in this article, she questioned whether she was a woman in rugby league worth celebrating.
Yvette is passionate about women’s footy, so it is fitting she is the only woman across our game to hold a position in which she manages two departments – major competitions and community competitions. In the major competitions division, Yvette and her team look after nine competitions from the Intust Super Premiership to junior representatives, including the Harvey Norman Women’s Premiership and the Tarsha Gale Cup.
In the community competitions space, Yvette and her team of 10 work across 11 NSWRL junior league districts with a key focus being on participation, including opportunities and offerings for women and girls.
Because of women like Yvette and her drive to work with all stakeholders to build opportunities for women, the NRL is in a strong position to launch a women’s competition this year. While Yvette credits women like Kezie Apps and Ruan Sims as being voices that can empower the next generation, it is because of her that women have competitions in NSW and the pathway is now well formed and established.
When Australian Jillaroo Talesha Quinn reflects on Jessica Sergis’s first game for the Cronulla Sharks, she remembers Jess asking her on the field about the rules.
"So can I strip the ball one-on-one?"
Next minute, Jess steals the ball in a one-on-one strip and runs the length of the field to score.
Its been a remarkable rise for Jess, who came to the sport late. When she represented NSW in the interstate challenge last year (scoring a hat-trick on her Blues debut), she had only played five games after playing rugby union and touch football growing up.
In 2017, Jess played for Cronulla's nines team, represented her state in the interstate challenge and was selected to play for the Jillaroos in a one-off Test in Papua New Guinea. Despite missing out on the World Cup, I’m confident another green and gold jersey is not far away.
Jess is a star of the future to keep your eyes on.
When it comes to rugby league and the Cronulla Sharks, there are fewer women more passionate than Lyn.
Her earliest memories of the club are sitting in the original wooden seats at Shark Park in the 1970s. The seats were like bleachers with six to eight rows in each stand and the bleachers were made of painted white timber. Kids would play underneath the seats, even though the seats were wobbly and looked like they would collapse at any moment.
Some of her favourite early memories include the Sharks winning the Amco Cup when she was 16 at Leichhardt Oval – a moment only eclipsed when Cronulla won their first Telstra Premiership trophy in 2016.
Lyn is a wonderful representative of the female fans and members involved in our game. She has been a member of the Sharks for decades, is a regular fixture at home and away matches and is a fan that truly believes in the importance of supporting the men (and now women) that represent the club that wears black, white and blue.
I’m so proud to love a game that stands up for diversity and inclusion. It doesn’t matter what gender you identify with, whether you are young or old or whether you were born in Australia or another part of the world – there is a place in the rugby league family for all of us.
It is so important that we remember the role our game has as a powerful voice and driver of change in the society in which we live and that we continue to #PressForProgress.
This article is dedicated to one of my favourite women in league, former Australian Jillaroos player Allana Ferguson who was forced into early retirement late last year due to ongoing injuries. I look forward to seeing her continuing involvement in our game through women’s footy and her role as a media commentator at Channel Nine.