Meet the girls from Cessnock Public School

What do you get when you combine 12 schools, the name of a former Jillaroo and a genuine love of rugby league?  The answer is the Rebecca Young Cup – a 7-a-side, full contact rugby league gala day for girls in Year 5 and 6 held at Lakeside Sporting Complex earlier in June.

We caught up with Mat Clarke and his all-girl team from Cessnock Public School to hear about their experience in the tournament.  The girls were the first ever female rugby league team in the 157 year history of the school. 

 So what is the Rebecca Young Cup?

It’s a rugby league tournament for girls in years 5 and 6 and when I say rugby league, I mean rugby league – that means tackling too.

The tournament is in its 5th year and is growing quickly.  From 3 schools fielding teams in the tournament’s first year, 2016 saw a massive 12 schools fielding teams.  These 12 teams are split into two pools (Newcastle based schools and Hunter based schools) and take part in a round robin knockout competition.

Who is Rebecca Young?

Rebecca Young is a Novocastrian and former Jillaroo.  Her family are well a well-known rugby league family in the Hunter region.  Rebecca represented Australia and her older brother Michael played NRL for the Newcastle Knights.

Rebecca also featured this year in the Women’s State of Origin series, where NSW defeated QLD for the first timer ever (the Series has been going for 17 years).

It comes as no surprise that the Newcastle and Hunter regions established this tournament because both regions absolutely love their rugby league and are proud rugby league areas.  It is outstanding to see the proud tradition of rugby league in this region also extending to women and girls.

So which team did Ladies who League support on the day?

I don’t like to play favourites, but Mat coached the girls team from Cessnock Public School. I couldn’t help but absolutely fall in love with these girls who were the first ever female rugby league team in the 157 year history of the school!

Mat coached the team and became involved after two girls approached him earlier in the year asking for opportunities for girls to play rugby league at school.  One of these girls is a registered weekend player and the other plays with the boys on the school team.  Mat told the girls about the Rebecca Young Cup and they were instantly keen.  The conditions were that the girls had to find the coach a minimum of five more girls that were interested and he would sign up and coach.  The team sheet arrived the next day!

Only two girls on the team had played a game of competitive rugby league before participating.

Who won?

The mighty girls from Cessnock Public School finished the day with a record of three wins, one draw and one loss from their five games, to finish second in the Hunter Pool.

The final was won by St Brigid’s Primary School, Raymond Terrace, who beat Metford Public School 20-8 in a highly entertaining match.  Both schools will progress to contest the “Legends Shield” in Sydney in August, playing against the winners of other divisional tournaments.

Tell us some stories!

“I had a girl in my team that admitted to me before the first game that she was scared of getting hurt.  I told her that it was OK to be nervous, but to not be scared, trust the technique that she had learned from the NRL game development officers and that she would be fine.  After our last game, she came up to ask me when the next footy day was. When I told her about a touch gala next term, she said “I don’t want to play touch anymore… I like tackling now!””

– Coach, Mat Clarke

“Another one of my ‘first timers’ became very quiet and focussed before the first game. I asked if she was OK, she said she was fine, so I let her be – I thought it might have been pre-game nerves.  The first time the opposition got the ball, she shot out of the line and made a cracking ball and all tackle. She then promptly jumped up, looked over to me and yelled “I did it!” and literally jumped for joy.  The play had moved on and I only had time to yell out “good girl… now do it again!”.  Once that initial metal barrier was cleared, she tackled everything that moved and slotted into her new-found home at dummy half with class and guts – I had a couple of opposing coaches ask what ‘weekend team’ she played for.  No-one could believe that she was a horse rider playing in a pair of borrowed boots.”

– Coach, Mat Clarke

“After our last game, I went looking for my girls as they were needed at a presentation before leaving.  I assumed they had headed to the canteen or the change rooms… instead, I found seven 11/12 year old girls sitting in a huddle on the hill, watching the final together, discussing footy boots and comparing bruises!  Couldn’t think of a better end to the day!”

– Coach, Mat Clarke

“Christina always wanted to play footy.  She’s played since she was 5.  She gave it up for a year to play netball, but it wasn’t her game.

I’ve always encouraged her.  I love watching her play. I don’t worry too much about her getting hurt – she’s a tough kid, and she loves the game.

There needs to be a pathway for girls who want to play the game.  From age 12-16 is a long time for girls to go with no footy.  A lot of girls leave the game in that time and never come back.  I think Christina will stay in the game wherever she can but she’ll miss her weekend footy if that opportunity isn’t available for her”.

– David George, father of Christina who was one of the forwards in Mat’s team.

So what happened during Women in League Round?

This story was too good not to share with my friends at the NRL.  When I told the NRL about the girls from Cessnock Public School, they decided it would only be fitting to hold a girl’s skill session during Women in League Round.

On Friday, I headed to Cessnock with the NRL to help host a girl’s rugby league clinic.

With a series of communication drills, tackling and passing drills, the girls were in their element. Amongst cheers of delight and smiling faces, the girls from Cessnock were also joined by Bec Young and Caitlin Moran (who also featured in the winning NSW team).

Following the skills session was a question session and the opportunity for photos with Bec and Caitlin.  The questions all revolved around what it takes to be a successful athlete, the opportunities for girls to play rugby league and the choices that the girls would need to make in the next couple of years to achieve their rugby league dreams.

This clinic was all about celebrating female participation in the Central Hunter Region and it certainly achieved its purpose.

With thank you’s to…

Luke Lawrence and the team at the NRL Development Hunter for organising a tremendous day and a big thanks to Mat for sharing the story with me.

The NRL Central Hunter Development team have worked extremely hard to promote and foster female participation in the Central Hunter region and it is truly a joy to see this team providing girls with more opportunities to play rugby league and has seen the establishment of the Rebecca Young Cup, 3 nine a side girls secondary tackle days in the area, the Kacey Drummond Cup competitive day with 21 teams included, a girls secondary Catholic rugby league day a girls only holiday clinic in 2016 and the establishment of a local ladies league tag competition.

I am always so encouraged to hear stories like this. When people tell you that NRL is a male dominated sport, instead of telling them about the involvement of women like Yvonne Sampson, Raelene Castle or Kasey Badger, this might be a story worth sharing.


Next generation of Australian Jillaroos?  You betcha!


Ladies who League xxx

P.S. To check out the video footage from the day visit