This article was first written and published for NRL.com.
Sport is one of the most powerful forces on Earth – it has the capacity to bring people together in a way that almost nothing else can.
It’s been a remarkable year for the NRL. When I reflect on 2018 season I was reminded at almost every point of the season the NRL family is for everyone and one where everyone is welcome.
Rugby league is all about being inclusive and because of that, I’m proud to say I’m part of the rugby league family.
On Sunday night the curtains closed on club season with Brisbane becoming the inaugural Holden Women’s Premiership champions and the Sydney Roosters defeating Melbourne to claim their first NRL title since 2013.
There has also been some wonderful footy played on the field through the year – we have said goodbye to plenty of legends including Luke Lewis, Johnathan Thurston and Billy Slater and watched the emergence of new talent like Latrell Mitchell, Kalyn Ponga, Victor Radley and Jamayne Isaako.
In recent weeks, ARL Commission chairman Peter Beattie has told us that commercial revenue and ratings are up.
These are both important things for the financial health of our game.
One of the key components of the NRL’s success has been the development in the women’s game over the past year.
In 2018, female participation in rugby league grew a staggering 29%.
More than 7000 people went to North Sydney Oval to watch the inaugural women’s State of Origin contest.
At the end of the game, the spectators stormed the field for photos and autographs with the players driven by an overwhelming sense of joy.
The night only ended when security decided it was time to escort the fans and players from the field.
Then there was the inaugural NRLW competition. Whatever nerves I had heading into round one quickly dissipated when I saw the quality of football the Broncos, Warriors, Dragons and Roosters were playing.
By the end of the competition, I had no concerns about the long-term viability or success of the product because I know the NRL is committed to growing the game at a sustainable pace with guidance from the people who know best – the players themselves.
This week the Australian Jillaroos squad was announced for next Saturday’s Test against the Kiwi Ferns. The fact there were six debutantes named and experienced campaigners like Karina Brown and Ruan Sims both missed out on selection demonstrates just how much talent was unearthed during the competition.
Off the field, women continued to be involved in the administration and governance of our game. Women were also increasingly visible in the media, as volunteers and also as fans.
I’ve already mentioned the Origin game at North Sydney Oval – it delivered one of my favourite images of the year. The NRLW has uncovered plenty of wonderful stories – mother and son duo of Lorina and Isaiah Papali’i and Warriors teammates Laura and Hilda Mariu, who are married to each other.
But what has also been known by followers of the women’s game for so long is Karina Brown and Vanessa Foliaki are also a couple – they even call themselves the Foliaki-Browns.
After opposing each other in the game at North Sydney Oval, they took a quiet moment away from the field to have a kiss and a cuddle. Photographers snapped this moment and minutes later it was all over social media.
While most people celebrated the image, there were some parts of social media which did not embrace it and then questioned the “message” the NRL was sending.
The official NRL Facebook account replied to one of these comments and said “welcome to 2018 … can’t wait for you to join us!”
NRL.com had earlier published a great story on the couple and celebrated them for who they were – loving partners who happen to be talented footy players in the unusual situation of facing each other in an interstate clash.
Speaking of moments, one of my most emotional moments during the season happened as recently as last week at the Dally M Awards when Roger Tuivasa-Sheck was announced as the Dally M Medal winner.
After he spoke, there was a rumbling from the audience. It was his New Zealand teammates Issac Luke, Jazz Tevaga, Jordan Rapana and Jamayne Isaako, who performed an impromptu haka in honour of the achievement. It was a touching moment and one that brought the audience to its feet.
To see such a visible demonstration of the love and respect our players have for each other and for their cultures was something really special.
And as always, Indigenous Round was a tremendously successful fixture on the NRL calendar with an indigenous national anthem being performed at every game prior to the Australian national anthem. With 12% of NRL-contracted players identifying as indigenous it is fitting these players are given the opportunity to celebrate their culture and family history and for the rest of the NRL fan base to recognise our country’s indigenous population.
We also saw the Warrington Wolves’ Physical Disability Rugby League team play South Sydney in the inaugural PDRL World Club Challenge at ANZ Stadium in a game held before the NRL clash between the Rabbitohs and Wests Tigers.
I’m so proud to be part of the rugby league family – a family that at almost every opportunity demonstrates that it is a family that welcomes all.
It is this that will see our game continue to grow, develop and prosper well into the future.