This story was first written for and published by NRL.com.
The women’s Rugby League World Cup begins in just 12 sleeps. This week I caught up with the number 1 fans of Kezie Apps, Maddie Studdon and Sammy Bremner – their mums Dawn, Jo-Anne and Maria.
‘Kezie has this aura – she brings out the best in people and I know she brings the best out in me. She is always smiling and I am so proud of her.’ – Dawn Apps (Kezie’s mum)
Four years ago, Kezie Apps found out that the Australian Jillaroos were competing in the Rugby League World Cup. It was the first time she had heard about the opportunity that women had to represent their country in footy.
From that moment, Kezie knew she wanted to be one of these women.
An athlete at heart, growing up Kezie played a number of sports including rugby league, OzTag, hockey and rugby union, but she always loved rugby league the most.
It was this love that saw Kezie and mum Dawn drive from Kezie’s home town of Bega to Sydney (and back again!) every Saturday so Kezie could compete in the competition based in Helensburgh. That’s a round trip of between 10 and 11 hours and one which saw the Apps car do over 100,000 kilometres in four years.
For Dawn Apps there have been plenty of stand-out moments during her daughter’s career including watching her win the Dally M Medal in 2016 and seeing her score her first try for the Australian Jillaroos in 2016 (on Kezie’s birthday).
But there have been some hard times too. Every time Kezie takes the field, until that first hit-up, Dawn is so nervous she shakes with nerves.
Then there was the moment Kezie got injured during the Auckland Nines this year. Dawn calls Kezie ‘pretty tough’ and she knew that the injury was serious when her daughter wasn’t moving.
What many people know is that Kezie severely injured her leg in that game and travelled back to Sydney wearing a moon boot. What many people don’t know is that Dawn had also torn a ligament in her foot the week before the Nines, so both women went home with matching moon boots.
While four years ago Kezie was inspired by women like Ruan Sims, Steph Hancock and Karyn Murphy to start playing footy again, Kezie now acts as that inspiration for others too.
Back home in Bega, there are a number of young women who idolise Kezie and play the tackle version of the game because of her.
Imagine what can be achieved between now and the start of the next Rugby League World Cup.
‘It is just amazing to watch my daughter and every other woman out there that puts their body on the line for our country’. – Jo-Anne Studdon (Maddie’s mum)
Imagine an enthusiastic, determined four-year-old in a jersey which went down to her knees getting ready to play her first game of rugby league. For Jo-Anne Studdon, there’s no need to imagine it because her daughter Maddie played her first game of footy at age four for Mascot Junior Rugby League Football Club.
Similar to Kezie, Maddie’s journey is one which has seen her take some time away from rugby league because at age 12, girls could no longer play footy with the boys.
Maddie then switched to OzTag and touch football, but when she found out that Sammy Bremner was starting a women’s rugby league team down in Helensburgh, Jo-Anne knew that nothing she could do could keep Maddie away from the sport she loved.
It hasn’t always been easy. Jo-Anne reflects on parts of life that Maddie has had to miss because of her commitment to footy – things most teenagers take for granted like going out, having a social life and spending time with friends.
Then there’s the injuries. During her footy career, Maddie has had two serious ones – a broken fibula and a dislocated shoulder which took her out of the game for a year. Jo-Anne speaks with tremendous pride about the dedication Maddie had to come back and the level-headedness she displays for someone so young.
At age 23, Maddie plays in one of the most important positions on the field – halfback. Watch Maddie on the field and you’ll see her directing play, encouraging her team mates and barking orders. They are skills that her dad has helped teach her and encouraged her to focus on as coach of several of the sides that Maddie has played in.
If you’re looking for Jo-Anne when the Rugby League World Cup kicks off you will find her in the same seat at Southern Cross Group Stadium. A self-proclaimed ‘superstitious mum’, it’s important that Jo-Anne sits in the same place and goes through the same routine before Maddie takes the field.
And her advice for parents of any young girl wanting to play rugby league? ‘Let them have a go – we had no chance of holding Maddie back’.
‘She plays for the love of it, not to be a star. She loves to win and represent her country.’ – Maria Hammond (Sammy’s mum)
If Maria Hammond has one regret, it’s that when Sammy was growing up and asked to play rugby league she responded ‘no, you don’t want to play rugby league’. But it’s something that shouldn’t bother Maria too much because her determined, talented and joyful daughter found her way back to rugby league anyway.
Sammy Bremner started playing rugby league when she was 18 years old. But it wasn’t enough that Sammy was playing, she was also playing in a team in Helensburgh that she started. Alongside other future Jillaroos like Kezie and Maddie, Sammy really changed the face of the Illawarra competition.
Just like Dawn and Jo-Anne, you can hear Maria smile when she talks about her daughter. When reflecting on Sammy’s career she says ‘it is an honour to watch her and be proud of her’.
There have been plenty of highlights along the way. Like remembering that Sammy, the try-scoring machine, used to be a bit self-conscious about how many tries she would score. She was so self-conscious in fact that she would ask other girls to run alongside her so she could pass the ball to them at the last minute. Or watching Sammy make the acceptance speech as captain of the Australian Jillaroos at the Auckland Nines this year with that trademark Bremner smile on her face.
What struck me about speaking to all these mums, is how conscious they are that their daughters are not just playing for themselves, but are also paving the way for the next generation of Jillaroos.
According to Maria, ‘little girls are unbelievable’. Sammy now has the opportunity to meet young women who have posters of her all over their walls. One girl even went to Book Week dressed as Sammy earlier this year.
This current Jillaroos squad truly believes that each member of the squad is valuable and important. The squad is there for each other and to support each other every step of the way. It is this sense of togetherness and family that will hold the squad in good stead heading into this Rugby League World Cup.
We can only hope that the next generation of Australian Jillaroos embody this same spirit as the women’s game continues to grow and go from strength to strength.
And of course a big thank you to all the footy mums out there. We could not do this without you.