Next week is my favourite regular round of the rugby league season – Women in League Round. This round gives us an opportunity to celebrate the tremendous contributions that women make across our game and to recognise the increasing and influential role of women in the rugby league family.
Often when people ask me about my own personal goals around 'Women in League' round I tell them I hope at some point down the line the round is no longer required because the role of women in the game is so entrenched, it doesn’t need to be called out anymore.
For the first time this year, I've started asking myself – are we almost there?
No matter what part of our game you look at women are present.
Women like Rebecca Doyle, Eleni North and Rebekah Horne, who sit on the NRL executive; Rebecca as general manager of people and culture, Eleni as general counsel and company secretary and Rebekah as head of digital. While all three women have different roles, they take every opportunity they can to advocate about the importance of diversity and inclusion throughout the game.
We have champions of our sport in government. Women like the Honourable Linda Burney MP who made history in 2016 when she became the first Aboriginal woman to be elected to the House of Representatives. But she's also a fanatical Canterbury Bulldogs supporter and a champion of the community that team represents.
In the community space, Helen Wood-Grant is deputy chair of the Men of League Foundation which is an organisation that lends a helping hand to the men, women, and children in the rugby league family who have fallen on hard times. Her work in this space is admirable – but what I love even more is Helen is also a passionate advocate for women’s footy.
Even though she is based in Brisbane, she was at every single game the Australian Jillaroos played in last year’s World Cup - the preliminary games in Sydney as well as the final at Suncorp Stadium.
Women are leaders at out clubs. Two that immediately spring to mind are Marina Go, who chairs the Wests Tigers board, and Lynne Anderson, who does likewise for the Bulldogs. Not to mention the countless women sitting on our club boards.
On the field, our female officials continue to work hard as fans ask "When will they make their NRL debuts as referees?" Hopefully, that day is not far away for touch judges Kasey Badger or Belinda Sleeman.
Women in media are a regular fixture now. When you turn on your television you’ll most likely see Yvonne Sampson, Hannah Hollis, Lara Pitt, Jess Yates, Erin Molan, Emma Lawrence and Danika Mason. If you listen via the radio, keep your ears out for Ruan Sims, who covers the NRL with ABC Grandstand.
But the jewel in the NRL crown at the moment has been the leaps and bounds made in the last year when it comes to women’s footy.
Introducing the Women's St George Illawarra Dragons
It has been a historic year – the scene was set last year when the NRL announced the inaugural women’s competition off the back of a successful World Cup campaign for the Jillaroos.
Since then we have had a history-making Origin night at North Sydney Oval and momentum continuing to develop for the start of the season. The four teams – Brisbane, St George Illawarra, Sydney Roosters and the Warriors – have started training this week.
I’m loving seeing footy fans get so excited about the ability to purchase memberships and jerseys for the new teams.
Then there is the lifeblood of the game – our fans, members and volunteers. Women are passionate footy fans whether it be on the sidelines cheering on their footy team or on the sidelines cheering on members of their family. It would be remiss of me not to celebrate some of these women this week too.
Meet Melissa, who is a high school music and English teacher at De La Salle College Caringbah. She lives smack bang in the middle of Cronulla Sharks territory, but don’t let that fool you. Melissa is a tragic Eels fan, has sat on the Parramatta Eels Members Council since its inception in 2014 and quite simply, loves her footy team.
When her family migrated from Malta in 1957 they settled in Guildford and were fortunate enough to experience the Blue & Gold glory years through the 1980s. With a mum that supported the Eels and an uncle who was a member of the club for 30 years, Melissa had no choice when choosing a team of her own.
Melissa has fond memories including the 2001 and 2009 seasons, particularly that magic run to the grand final nine years ago .
In particular, Melissa remembers the second week in a row that the Eels had faced the Dragons, with the second time being sudden death. Despite being hammered 37-0 the week before, the Eels beat the Dragons in the first round of playoffs 25-12 to keep their finals hopes alive. It was on that day Melissa decided she would become a member of the club she loved so much and she hasn’t looked back.
Meet Kate. Despite being born and bred in NSW, she is one of those unusual folk that supports the Queensland Maroons and the North Queensland Cowboys.
Her reasons? For six weeks every year, from age four onward, her parents would pack the family van with Kate, her older sister, and twin brother and drive north. Her favourite memories are pretty much all north of the Tweed. The first time she saw Magnetic Island, she was hooked and Kate never feels more at home than when she steps off the plane in Townsville and enters 'Cowboys Country'.
Kate fell in love with the Cowboys the first time she saw Matt "Mango" Bowen play. Her dad said to her 'Check out this little fullback for the Cowboys…'.
She sat down next to her dad and within two minutes Mango had carved up through the middle and side-stepped his way to a try under the posts.
Since that moment, Kate and her dad have always been able to share something special – their mutual love for the Cowboys. It has given them a bond and ensures that whenever Kate thinks about the Cowboys, she thinks of family.
Kate and her dad are no longer the only Cowboys fans in her family though. Kate now has a baby niece that lives in Cairns. She already knows how to yell "Go Cowboys!"; knows who JT is; and when the family shared her first birthday on Magnetic Island, Michael Morgan just happened to be there too to say hello.
Catherine is a Wests Tigers supporter.
She was born and bred in the Macarthur region and sport has always been a big part of her life. Despite having played touch football and netball and having horses for over 30 years, Catherine identifies as a rugby league fanatic and watches most games every round.
Catherine decided to support the Tigers because they are the team that represent her local area. It is important for her to show allegiance to her community by supporting the local teams.
What is Catherine’s favourite Tigers memory? Winning the grand final in 2005 of course. Catherine describes that whole finals series as electric and she rode the feeling of pride for the Tigers for many weeks after. Sometimes, Catherine watches the replay and just reminisces.
But for Catherine it is more than just a game. Being a part of the Wests Tigers family is rewarding and she has met many people who she now calls friends. Friends who share the highs and lows together of supporting a footy team are certainly friends that stay together in the long run.
The views in this article do not necessarily express the opinions of the NRL, ARLC, NRL clubs or state associations.