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When Deidre met Belinda: Referees unite after 51 years

Belinda Sharpe made history as the first female to officiate a first-grade game last season but the leading NRL referee met her match this week in the form of 84-year-old trailblazer Deidre Rae.

The pair came together at Central Coast Stadium on Wednesday in heart-warming fashion to celebrate Women in League round.

Rae shared her experiences as one of Australia's first-ever recognised referees in the late 1960s after passing an examination test on August 14, 1969.

Deidre wrote letters to Harvey Norman CEO Katie Page and retiring radio host Alan Jones earlier this year to congratulate both on their respective careers.

"Mum then gave a bit of background into what she did in 1969," Deidre's daughter, Trudy, told NRL.com.

"She started off coaching the boys at school. My brother didn't have anyone to coach them.

"She started to notice the fathers would give her a hard time so she went and did her own research, studied the rules and then thought she would go get her referees' licence.

"They were all convinced she'd fail, but as it turns out there were three guys who got 60 percent and she got close to 100.

Deidre Rae out in the middle again some 51 years after getting her referee's ticket.
Deidre Rae out in the middle again some 51 years after getting her referee's ticket.

"She was top of the class and they were all surprised, so she went back to schoolboys but would still cop a bit of grief.

"They did give her a very hard time. She felt very unwelcomed, but this time she was able to walk over and show them her ticket (referees' certificate) to shut them up."

While Deidre was qualified to referee in first grade, she was restricted to schoolboy games and charity fixtures that helped raise money for various causes.

"It was lovely to meet Deidre and I had to thank her and tell her I was inspired by her," Sharpe said.

"Although her story is disappointing in some respects, it's very inspiring in that she never gave up her dream of being a referee.

"She continued to push the boundaries and challenged the lack of representation in the game.

"Women like Deidre probably didn't realise it at the time but her actions paved the way for women to be involved.

"She said to me she's seen the way females are involved in the game now and she's so thrilled about that."

Sharpe continues to pave the way for female referees across world sport after making her first-grade debut in a Bulldogs-Broncos clash at Suncorp Stadium last year.

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"I'm just proud to be involved in a sport that is so inclusive," she said.

"I've had so many positive experiences, the players and fans don't seem to care if you're male or female, they just expect you to do your job.

"It's a time to reflect on my own journey and how grateful I am. But while it's great to recognise, what I'm most pleased about is it is becoming a norm."

Trudy said Deidre's meeting with Sharpe had left her mother 'overwhelmed' and 'content' after finally building up the confidence to come forward.

"Belinda was the loveliest person, mum hasn't stopped talking about how friendly she was and engaged she was to hear from her more than anything.

"This is the first lady, and it's taken 50 years, for a woman to referee in a male-dominated sport.

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"But I was just the toddler on the sidelines, her eyes were on me as much as they were on the game."

As for Deidre's effort blowing the same whistle for the first time in more than four decades, Sharpe was impressed.

"She hasn't lost it, that's for sure," Sharpe grinned.