When I started Ladies Who League five years ago, with the intention of encouraging more women to get involved in conversations about rugby league, I never imagined how much a small blog would change my life. That small blog has expanded my heart, turned me into a more confident version of myself, and taught me to embrace the word “feminist”.
I have loved rugby league since I was eight years old. I wanted to spend more time with my dad and brothers on the weekend. Because they watched the footy, I started to. I remember curling up in my dad’s lap and, over time, I learnt the rules and adopted the mighty Parramatta Eels as my team. I’ve been a goner ever since.
When I began my Ladies Who League blog in June 2013, it was almost entirely focused on the men’s game because, at that point, men’s sport was all I knew. But looking back now, I feel a sense of shame that through all those years of supporting the Eels it never crossed my mind to ask: “Why aren’t there any women playing rugby league?” Pulling on a pair of boots myself wasn’t something I’d contemplated, because you can’t be what you can’t see. And I couldn’t see women playing rugby league.
I first found out about a talented group of women called the Jillaroos, the Australian women’s rugby league team, after their success at the 2013 Rugby League World Cup. I knew that if I didn’t know about them, then very few footy fans would, despite them having competed internationally since the early 1990s.
It was time to change focus. Over time, Ladies Who League has become much more than a blog that focuses on the men’s game and the prominent women involved in the administration of rugby league. It has become a movement about the untold stories of women in our game, particularly those who play. And there is the underlying message that however you want to be involved in rugby league, you are welcome and there is a place for you.
Now Ladies Who League is an online news platform that delivers content via social media (particularly Twitter and Instagram), articles for outlets such as NRL.com and The Roar, and a podcast that is part of the ABC Grandstandfamily. It has also expanded into other sports through spin-offs such as Ladies Who Legspin, Ladies Who Lineout and Ladies Who Leap. Altogether, that helps me to reach over 1 million eyes a month.
As women’s sport continues to gain prominence, there is growing appetite for content on our female athletes and the stories behind their successes. It’s a privilege to be able to help contribute to the conversation.
Along the way I have met some outstanding women that remind me just how varied the involvement of women is in rugby league. If ever I’m asked why I like rugby league so much, I point to these women and say “I want to be like them”.
They are women like Rebecca Doyle and Eleni North, who sit in the NRL’s senior management team and speak out on the importance of all forms of diversity and inclusion.
Or Helen Wood-Grant, who is on the board of the Men of League Foundation — an organisation that provides assistance to the men, women and children in the rugby league family who have fallen on hard times. Helen is also a passionate advocate for women’s footy.
There are plenty of people who demand more for women playing rugby league — particularly when it comes to broadcast and visibility. But often those same people are missing when it comes to putting their bum on a seat and actually watching women’s footy. Wood-Grant is not one of those people — she was at every single game the Jillaroos played last year in the Rugby League World Cup.
Then there are Kasey Badger and Belinda Sleeman, who are part of the emerging referees’ squad and are, hopefully, not far from making their NRL debut as main officials.
Women are also leading the way at our clubs. Two that come to mind are Marina Go, who chairs the Wests Tigers board, and Lynne Anderson, who is chair of the Canterbury Bulldogs. They are two women I admire immensely, with Go always reminding me to “say yes and then work it out later”.
There are women in media, who have become such a regular fixture in our NRL coverage — Yvonne Sampson, Hannah Hollis, Lara Pitt, Jess Yates, Erin Molan, Emma Lawrence and Danika Mason, just to name a few.
And, of course, there are our Australian Jillaroos. When people ask who inspires me, I often say that it is female athletes. I carry these women as a beacon inside me, reminding me to always chase what I love and to pursue a life with purpose. So many of these women have played sport without pay, while juggling many other commitments, simply because it is what they love. That is inspiring.