This article was first written for and published by the Roar.
When I first started writing about rugby league eight years ago, my goal was to encourage more women to get involved in conversations about the game, but also to promote the women that were visible to me in the game.
At that point, that generally extended to women as fans, women as volunteers, women involved in the media and women involved in the administration.
But, eight years ago I had no idea that women even played rugby league.
Then I found out about a group of women called the Australian Jillaroos and my whole outlook changed.
I still find it incredibly sad that growing up as a passionate footy fan, I never thought to even question whether women had the opportunity to play the game I loved so much.
Since then, plenty has changed and women are embedded throughout the game at all levels.
Women are our fans and our volunteers. They are the women cheering in the big stadiums but also cheering as their sons and daughters begin their own playing journey with rugby league.
Women like Belinda Sharpe and Kasey Badger continue to be part of the NRL’s referee squad, with Sharpe becoming the first woman to referee a professional first grade men’s match in 2019. She also refereed the 2020 NRLW grand final and I am hopeful she will get the same opportunity this year.
When it comes to media coverage women are embedded in broadcast, print and online coverage with women like Yvonne Sampson, Lara Pitt, Hannah Hollis, Sarah Keoghan, Niav Owens, Danika Mason, Katie Brown and Pamela Whaley continuing to lead the way.
Then there is Alicia Newton, who writes about rugby league from every angle for NRL.com but has become a leading authority in coverage of the women’s game.
This seems a far cry from the days where Debbie Spillane was accused of only being interested in rugby league to go into the dressing rooms and check out naked men.
There are also women involved in the highest echelons of the game with Professor Megan Davis and Kate Jones sitting on the Australian Rugby League Commission and women like Katrina Fanning and Vicki Leaver on club boards.
Then there is the jewel on the crown, which is the NRLW. It may be building slowly, but throughout the development of the competition the focus has been on building an exciting, sustainable and marketable competition. In the NRLW we have just that with the competition set to expand from four to six teams this year.
Not only have we seen some talented players like Millie Boyle, Tiana Penitani, Jessica Sergis and Corban Baxter emerge, but this year we are finally beginning to see players like Emily Curtain and Teagan Berry get ongoing opportunities.
These are women that have had the chance to play in the Tarsha Gale Competition, then the Harvey Norman Women’s Premiership before progressing to the NRLW. The pathway is working.
Additionally, the players of the past are also being recognised for their former contributions with Karyn Murphy, Veronica White and Nellie Doherty having awards named after them, Tarsha Gale and Jo Barrett involved in coverage and then Kylie Hilder and Tahnee Norris continuing to remain involved as coaches, with Hilder named as the NSW Blues Women’s coach and Norris and the QLD Maroons Women’s coach for this year’s State of Origin.
Then there was the introduction of the ‘No Fault Stand Down’ Policy. The first of its kind in any sporting code in Australia which finally said that the NRL was taking a stand in relation to players charged with serious criminal offences.
This week is Women in League Round. As a game, this round gives us the opportunity to celebrate the varied role of women in the game like I have above, while still remembering, that there is still plenty of work to be done.
But if all the women I have spoken about above are so embedded in the game, then do we need the round anymore. What is the point of it?
This isn’t just about one round. It is about highlighting the role women play in our game, but also continuing that conversation throughout the year too.
There is also an opportunity for all of us to think about what we can do to make the game more inclusive, not just for women, but for everyone.
I hope you all take a moment this week to celebrate the role women play in our game. I want to thank the women involved in footy who inspire me each day and remind us there is a place for everyone in the rugby league family whether it is as a fan, player, referee, advocate or administrator.
I would also particularly like to acknowledge the families of our players; their mothers, their wives, their sisters and their daughters. The impact of the pandemic has seen players forced to move country and state very quickly.
It has forced families into lockdown and meant that families have been separated. The sacrifice of our rugby league families is one of the reasons that the last two seasons have happened.