This story was first written for and published by NRL.com.
Yesterday when the Kiwi Ferns and the Canada Ravens took the field at Southern Cross Group Stadium, they made history. Later on when the Australian Jillaroos played the Cook Islands Women’s team and the England Women’s team took on the Papua New Guinea Orchids, they also contributed to a day that will forever be marked in rugby league history – a day where the women’s game was put front and centre on the world stage.
This Women’s Rugby League World Cup is significant for so many reasons.
It is the first time that the Women’s Rugby League World Cup has been played as a stand-alone competition rather than as part of the Festival of World Cups on a user pays basis. Gone are the days where women representing their country had to pay for that honour. Now, the women competing are given the same opportunities as the men.
It will be the first time, in any sport, that the final of a World Cup in both the men’s and women’s competition will be played on the same day at the same venue.
It will be the first time that the Women’s Rugby League World Cup will be broadcast to people in Australia, New Zealand and PNG.
When one captain lifts the Women’s Rugby League World Cup on December 2nd, this will also be for the first time.
Each of the six teams participating in the women’s competition have a unique story of how they got here. Each team is made up of women with different stories of how they found rugby league and how they came to be in a position to represent their country on the world stage.
For the Australian Jillaroos, the mandate is clear. They have come into this World Cup looking to win. Australia are the number one ranked nation in the world and the rugby league community is expecting them to be there on 2nd December. I know that the Jillaroos will be disappointed with a finish which sees them ranked any lower than number one.
But for some of the other countries participating, the very fact that they are competing is significant in itself.
One such team is the PNG Orchids.
Why the Orchids?
Interestingly, PNG has more recorded orchid species than any other country in the world. There are over 3,000 known species, which means that the number of actual species is likely to be higher.
When the PNG Orchids took the field yesterday, they made history as PNG’s first national women’s rugby league team.
Given that rugby league is the national sport in PNG and that women have been playing rugby league in their communities for over a decade, it may be surprising to you that it has taken PNG so long to field a team.
But then, you hear women in the Orchids squad, like captain Cathy Neap, speak about how women are treated like second class citizens in PNG and the picture becomes clearer.
There is no need to sugar coat it. PNG is a dangerous place to live if you are a woman. Many women that live in PNG have experienced rape, or extreme violence during their lives. To be clear, that means if you meet a woman in PNG it may be more likely than not that she has been subjected to violence. When you shake the hand of a man in PNG it may be more likely than not that he has inflicted violence upon a woman.
It is hard to get your mind around.
I have heard stories which are distressing – where women turn up to local hospitals missing limbs because their husbands have cut them off.
What can rugby league do to change such systemic discrimination? It is only sport, right?
You cannot be what you cannot see. The fact that women are now visibly playing rugby league – a sport so integral to the fabric of PNG is a step in the right direction and has the ability to send a ripple through the fabric of the country.
As the World Cup is broadcast, the people of PNG will have the opportunity to see women being strong, powerful, confident and physical. It will not only demonstrate to men that there is a place for women in the rugby league family, but it will also demonstrate to women that they can participate in sport if they want to.
The Orchids are not only a beacon of light for their own country, but inspire all those who hear their story – including me.
These are women who have trained on fields covered in litter and decorated with potholes. These fields are of such low quality that the Orchids are more likely to be injured whilst they are training rather than when they take the field for a proper game.
This World Cup has the ability to help change this.
Captain Cathy Neap has spoken about how incredible it was for the Orchids to take the field during halftime of the World Cup game between the United States Rugby League team and the PNG Kumuls last week.
At one point in time women would not have been allowed on the field – they would have had sticks and stones thrown at them.
Now, the Orchids are welcome on the field and the whole stadium erupted with men and women cheering their names and applauding these women who will carry the hopes of many women on their shoulders when they compete.
This is truly the power of sport. It brings people together in a way that nothing else can and truly has the drive change in communities.
I would also like to take this opportunity to congratulate Oil Search – without whom, this dream for the Orchids could never have been realised.
In Australia brands like Harvey Norman, Buildcorp and Rebel Sport are strongly associated with women’s sport, but organisations like Oil Search are just as important – particularly in countries where gender inequality is as severe a problem as it is in PNG.
On behalf of the rugby league family, welcome to Australia, PNG Orchids. We do not underestimate what a significant journey this has been for you, and you are very welcome in the tournament.
To leaders and influencers in PNG, your work is not done. Participation in this Women’s Rugby League World Cup is the start of a journey which you must continue when you get home. You must continue to commit to giving women the space and opportunity to play rugby league. This will have far reaching benefits for the entirety of your beautiful country.
If you are considering heading down to Southern Cross Group Stadium for the Women’s World Cup, I encourage you to do so. Remember that there is only one ever first time – make sure you are part of it.