When England International Amy Hardcastle travelled to Australia in 2019 to play in the World Cup Nines, little did she know that she would be participating in a tournament which would be a new benchmark for women’s rugby league.
The Nines was completely integrated, with the men and women playing at the same venue, Bankwest Stadium, over two days.
“When I came out to the Nines, that was the first time I have ever experienced something like that with the women being on the same platform as the men,” said Hardcastle.
“That changed me because from that moment on, I could not accept anything less.
“Once I had experienced being on equal ground, I wanted that to continue because I give everything I can to play the game that I love and it is what we deserve.
“If Australia can do it, why can’t we?”
When Hardcastle saw the way that the women’s game was being celebrated and promoted in Australia it made her contemplate what was possible back home.
Since the Nines, Hardcastle has changed Super League clubs and now plays for St Helens.
It has been a history-making season for the Saints, with the men’s and women’s teams both tasting Challenge Cup glory - and what better way to celebrate than with a double celebration with a double-decker bus tour through the city.
The men were on the first bus and the women were on the second and as the buses drove through the entire postcode of St Helens, Hardcastle was amazed by the number of fans waiting to greet them.
“I was absolutely overwhelmed and it will probably be one of my favourite memories I’ll ever have,” said Hardcastle.
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“There were hundreds of people stacked through the streets, singing at you, wanting to celebrate you and just cheering for the women’s team.
“People were acknowledging us and telling us how proud we had made them. It’s huge for us because going forward we want the game to continue to grow so that the next generation have something to aspire to.”
This year in the Telstra Women’s Premiership, there will be three new teams, with Parramatta, Gold Coast and Newcastle joining the competition.
Each of these clubs will be integrating new teams into well-established environments and for Hardcastle, what she has learnt from her experience at St Helens is how important it is to do this integration with care, empathy and respect.
When a new team is introduced properly and made to feel welcome, the club feels like a family and establishes an environment where the women’s team is empowered to succeed on and off the field.
For Hardcastle it means the women’s team being given the opportunity to use the same facilities as the men. It means feeling like the club and its supporters have given the women’s team complete support.
And then there's the little things.
“It sounds silly, but going to games on a good bus with the rest of the team, which means I don’t need to worry about transportation to and from the game,” she said.
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“It’s about feeling like a professional and having other parts of the process looked after so that I can focus on my game.”
Then there were the symbolic touches by the club before and after the Challenge Cup final.
“After the semi-final, the club had one-off jerseys made for us for the Final and that was really special,” said Hardcastle.
“Then after we won the final, they honoured us by placing a reminder of that win in the tunnel, next to all the successes of the men’s team.
“That has never happened before and it means that this women’s team will forever be up there alongside the men’s team in the tunnel.”
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The Australian women in sport movement has also taken significant strides over the last five years and there have been many sports who have courageously stepped forward to set a new benchmark.
Hardcastle saw that with the World Nines.
I experienced it at the Nines and also on March 8, 2020 when a world record crowd of 86,174 descended on the MCG for the ICC T20 Women’s World Cup final between Australia and India.
With several global events coming to Australia in the next couple of years, including the FIBA Women’s Basketball World Cup in 2022 and the FIFA Women’s World Cup in 2023, our sports continue to get the opportunity to raise the bar and set new benchmarks for women’s sport.
Whilst there is still discussion about how and if the 2021 Rugby League World Cup will proceed, I hope rugby league in Australia also challenges itself to raise the bar.
Perhaps we will have that global opportunity in 2032, with Brisbane being named as the host of the Olympic Games.
The views in this article do not necessarily express the opinions of the NRL, ARL Commission, NRL clubs or state associations.