In a league of their own

This story was first written and published for the Walkley Magazine

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 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.

The NSW team celebrates victory in the first Women’s State of Origin match in June. Photo: Grant Trouville.

This was highlighted during the first Women’s State of Origin, held in June. Captain of the New South Wales Blues, Maddie Studdon, had to make a decision in the lead-up to the game to quit her job driving a truck at Port Botany so that she could focus on her commitments as a semi-professional footballer. Ali Brigginshaw, who has played for the Jillaroos and Queensland for several years, has spoken out about how difficult it is for her to hold down a full-time job because of her sporting commitments, instead opting be a contractor.

2018 has already been a groundbreaking year for women who play rugby league. I started the year knowing that the NRL’s inaugural women’s competition will kick off in September. The Sydney Roosters, Brisbane Broncos, St George Illawarra Dragons and New Zealand Warriors will be the first four teams in the competition, and player signings have begun.

When the decision to launch the competition was announced on 6 December 2017, I burst into tears at my desk. I cried for the women who have missed their opportunity, like Kasey Badger who had to give up rugby league at age 12 because she was a girl. I cried for the women who have waited so long for their opportunity, like current Jillaroos captain Ruan Sims. And I cried for all the little girls who I haven’t met yet, but who will get their opportunity.

On Friday 22 June, NSW won the first Women’s State of Origin, beating the Queensland team 16–10. It was played at North Sydney Oval before just short of 7000 people and a TV audience that peaked at 1.01 million. (The contest formerly known as the women’s Interstate Challenge has run since 1999, but was rebranded this year.)

This was one of the best nights of my life. To see so many people pay to go watch women play rugby league at such a historic venue was truly special. NSW may have won on the night, but it was about so much more than a final result. After the game was over, fans flooded the field and mobbed the players who hugged their fans and signed autographs and took selfies with anyone who asked. We stayed on the field for so long that security had to usher us off.

The best part? The best is yet to come. In September the new competition will begin, with the slogan “Same Game, Our Way”. It’s important to celebrate how far we have come while never forgetting how far we have to go, and to understand that when these women take the field, they will be playing the game so many of us love, just in their own way.

Five years ago, I couldn’t name an Australian Jillaroo. Today I call plenty of them my friends. I can tell you about their incredible journeys. About what makes them laugh. About why they love playing footy so much. And, most importantly, about how much this new women’s competition means to them.

It’s getting closer as well. Almost all the teams have now announced a full roster. We’re now waiting on the draw to be announced, with the games to be played as double-headers during the NRL finals. I’m looking forward to continuing to share the stories of these incredible women, particularly through my podcast and through the pieces I write for the NRL.

A final issue I want to touch on is the underlying perception that the players involved in rugby league are brutish and thuggish. More damning, though, is the perception that the NRL has a problem with countering violence towards women.

I acknowledge that our game is not perfect, but almost nothing is. Violence towards women is not a rugby league problem; it is a problem in our society. According to the most recent analysis of homicide statistics in Australia, on average one woman a week is murdered by her current or former partner. This is a national emergency. As a country we need to stand up and do better.

So how can I possibly be a feminist and stand by a game where there are men who have been accused of intolerable behaviours towards women? There are two main reasons. The first is because I know that the NRL is working hard in this space to educate its players through relationships with Our Watch and the Full Stop Foundation. Second, I want to be part of the movement that continues to push and drive the game to be better and to say this is not OK.

The majority of men involved in our game are passionate about what they can do in the community. Men like Trent Hodkinson from the Manly Sea Eagles who made front-page news last year when he took Kurri Kurri schoolgirl Hannah Rye to her Year 10 formal. Rye had terminal cancer and had met Hodkinson at a community initiative the year before. The pair stole the show and even cut a cake in front of all of Rye’s school friends. (The 15-year-old passed away a month later, in August 2017.) Or Adam Elliot from the Bulldogs, who grew up in Tathra and has been involved in relief efforts following the small coastal town’s devastation by bushfires earlier this year. Or Sam Tagataese, who plays for the Broncos and spends his days off volunteering for Borderless Community Services, an organisation that delivers food hampers to families in need.

These are the stories in our game I am remarkably proud to share.

When I look ahead five years, the landscape will have changed further. Our women’s game will have expanded and boys and girls will grow up knowing that men and women can play rugby league.

But what won’t have changed is my passion for footy and the Parramatta Eels. I wonder whether I’ll still be waiting for that elusive blue-and-gold Parramatta premiership …