Women’s game strong but expansion and more female leaders needed

This article was first written for and published by NRL.com.

This week the world marked International Women’s Day and in sport there was plenty of celebration about how far the dial has turned when it comes to women in sport.

In my view, rugby league as a game has plenty to be proud of and the time is right for the NRLW to expand in terms of number of matches and hopefully the amount of teams in the near future.

And we must continue to look ahead and where the next women off-field leaders in rugby league will come from.

For my first two decades as a footy fan, I never bothered to ask the question “can women play rugby league?”

Rugby league was a game “for the boys” and without visibility of female role models, I saw my place as a fan in the stands.

How much that has changed in the last five years.

We now have an NRL Telstra Women’s Premiership which continues to generate greater interest each year.

Our athletes are highly skilled, committed to the game and we love to watch them play.

Alongside players like James Tedesco, Cameron Munster and Damien Cook, little boys and girls can now aspire to be the next Jessica Sergis, Corban McGregor or Holli Wheeler.

Additionally, whilst there are only four teams in the NRLW, there are several teams chomping at the bit to enter the competition at the next available opportunity.

Just last week the Wests Tigers announced the establishment of their Women’s ROAR Academy.

This is a program focused on strengthening the pathway for women’s footy particularly from the under 13s through to under 17s.

There is no doubt that the competition needs to grow.

There is an opportunity to extend the length of the competition and in due course, introduce new teams.

I hope this thinking is front of mind for those in positions of leadership at the NRL.

Women in media are prevalent. The likes of Yvonne Sampson, Niav Owens, Lara Pitt and Emma Lawrence are just part of the coverage now. It’s no fuss and no bravado, because it has been normalised.

Belinda Sleeman and Kasey Badger continue to draw respect on and off the field for their officiating skills and if you look around the stands when you go to the footy you’ll see many women cheering on their favourite teams.

Many of these women volunteer at their local footy clubs and are the glue that hold junior footy together.

At a macro level, another way that rugby league has demonstrated its commitment to women is through the introduction of the no-fault stand down policy in 2019.

There is no other sport in this country that takes such a principled, consistent and hard-line stance on allegations of violence towards women. I am proud of the game for that.

But whilst there is much to celebrate, we must continue to look ahead and where the next women leaders in rugby league will come from.

Rugby league has been privileged to have many outstanding women involved in the administration of the game.

Whilst women like Suzanne Young, Marina Go, Amanda Laing and Lynne Anderson are no longer working “officially” with the game, their legacies continue.

These women demonstrated that there is a place for women to be in key leadership positions across the game and their legacy is continued through women like Megan Davis, Vicki Leaver and Katrina Fanning.

But we must continue to ensure that women put their hands up for leadership
positions and that those women involved in the game know that there is a pathway to leadership positions for them.

Another space where there is tremendous opportunity is in coaching. To date, the involvement of women in the upper echelons of the coaching ranks has been limited.

In 2018 when Luisa Avaiki was named as coach of the New Zealand Warriors NRLW team she made history as the first female coach in the elite club competition ranks.

The number of women involved in coaching had remained stagnant but that changed recently with the announcement Kylie Hilder had been appointed coach of the NSW Women’s State of Origin team.

Kylie Hilder darts away for NSW in the 2020 Origin game.
Kylie Hilder darts away for NSW in the 2020 Origin game.©Nathan Hopkins/NRL Photos

This makes Hilder the first female coach of NSW since Karen Stuart in 2011.

Visibility is also crucial. You can’t be what you can’t see.

To celebrate International Women’s Day, Cricket Australia also announced a project to address the imbalance of public recognition for women in cricket.

Across Australia right now, there are 73 known statues and sculptures of
cricket players. All these statues are men. Cricket Australia is committed to the installation of a sculpture of a female cricketer at the SCG.

We may have Brigginshaw Way under construction at Ecco Ripley, but how good would it be to see discussion around statutes of iconic women in our game.

There are plenty of names I could suggest – Katrina Fanning, Karyn Murphy, Tarsha Gale, Ruan Sims and Steph Hancock to name a few.

A big part of International Women’s Day is recognising how far we have come.

But we can’t bask in that success for too long.

It’s time to get to work and continue working to make our sport as diverse and welcoming as possible.