Remembering Nicole Fitzsimons

Today on Ladies who League I want to introduce you to Nicole Fitzsimons, her family and the Nicole Fitzsimons Foundation.

Nicole Fitzsimons was a talented, vivacious, brilliant, passionate young woman who died in a tragic scooter accident in Thailand.

She loved rugby league and her beloved Dragons and had hoped to become a sports journalist.

Before she passed away, Nicole wrote this story about her love of rugby league and we thought it was definitely worth sharing with all of you.

“You hear screaming and doors slamming early on a Sunday morning. You are probably witnessing a Fitzsimons family domestic. Breakfast and lunch will be eaten in silence with death stares shooting across the table, because one family member refused to put the rubbish out for the other. However, you can be guaranteed that by three o’clock that afternoon the Fitzsimons family will be side by side, laughing, cheering and hugging. That’s if there is a St George Illawarra rugby league game on that day.

Quick shots with Sammy Hopkin

This story was first written for and published by SBS Zela.

Sammy made her debut in the Australian women’s touch football team in 2009 and this year was appointed as an NRL State of Mind Ambassador.

Whilst she may be able to find her way to the touchline, we put her to the test this week to see if she could handle our quick shots.

Cheerleaders: Meet Darcie McDonald

This week the National Rugby League celebrates 10 years of the Women in League Round.  It gives the rugby league community the opportunity to pause and reflect on the variety of roles women hold in and around rugby league, of which there are many.

There is one particular group of women though that you simply cannot miss when you attend a rugby league game. They are generally wearing very bright clothing, are on the field from the moment the game starts to the minute the game ends and are extremely good at what they do.

Meet Rola El Eche: A rugby league player agent

You know how the old saying goes, behind every rugby league player there is a good…. player agent.

Long gone are the days when rugby league was semi-professional and our players would turn up to training after a long day at work, have a run on the field, turn up on the weekend and play just for the love of the game.

Today, our game is professional and our players are full-time.  Not only is it absolutely essential that our players are in peak physical condition, but it is also important that a holistic approach is taken to their welfare so that mind, body and spirit are well taken care of.

Women in League Round is absolutely worth celebrating

This article was first written for and published by The Roar.

Today, the NRL officially launches Women in League Round. This week is an opportunity for us as a game to celebrate the participation, commitment and role that women play at all levels of the rugby league family.

Women in League Round is an opportunity to celebrate, and worth getting excited about, but it can be incredibly divisive.

I’ve heard all the reasons as to why we shouldn’t celebrate Women in League Round. Today, I thought I would share some of those reasons with you and explain why I don’t think they are relevant.

Five women in footy you need to meet

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This article was first written for and published by Women’s Agenda.

This week the NRL celebrates 10 years of Harvey Norman Women in League Round.  This round presents an opportunity for everyone to in the rugby league family to celebrate the role that women play in and around the game. 

I have been a passionate rugby league supporter for many years, particularly my team the Parramatta Eels. Often when I tell people that I am a passionate rugby league fan, I am met with surprised looks and questions like “how could a girl like you possibly like rugby league?”

As a rugby league fan this is always a challenge – working out how to respond to questions about how I could possibly support a game that people perceive has demonstrated that women are “unwelcome” within its ranks. 

Rugby league is no stranger to controversy off the field. In light of scandals involving high profile players, the key message here is that this is not a rugby league problem. Our sports are a reflection of our society and that as long as issues of violence, gender inequality and sexism continue to exist in our societies, they will continue to be reflected in our sports. This does not mean that rugby league should bury its head in the sand – quite the opposite. The game has a responsibility to take a strong stance when it comes to important social issues, but the reputation of the few should not tarnish the actions of the many.

The way I respond to criticisms about the involvement of women in the game is to prove people wrong.

Over the last couple of years, there are some women that have become increasingly recognisable as women involved in rugby league. For example, Raelene Castle has been Chief Executive Officer at the Canterbury Bulldogs since 2013 and earlier this year extended her contract for an additional 2 years.  Marina Go is Chairperson at the Wests Tigers and, like Raelene, is a proud and fierce advocate encouraging women to get involved. Yvonne Sampson made history earlier this year when she anchored State of Origin and became the first female broadcaster to anchor a major sporting event in Australia.

Whilst these women are increasingly visible, I would like to take the opportunity during Women in League round to introduce you to another 5 women involved in rugby league which will demonstrate to you the breadth of female involvement in the game.

1.  Kasey Badger – Current NRL referee

Up to age 12, Kasey played rugby league, but then had to stop playing as there were no pathways for girls to continue.  She decided that refereeing might be a way that she could continue to participate in the game she loved so much.

Flash forward to today and Kasey is one of 2 women to be included in the NRL’s Referee Elite Performance Unit (along with Belinda Sleeman) and became just the second female to officiate a first grade game of rugby league in 2015.

On the weekends you can often spot Kasey running up and down the touchlines officiating.  Kasey jokes that one of her biggest challenges is working out which boots to wear with the referee’s jersey she is wearing that weekend (there are currently 3 variations).  With over 20 pairs of boots, Kasey is spoiled for choice.

2.  Helen Wood-Grant – National Board Member at the Men of League Foundation

Before I introduce you to Helen, I should firstly introduce the Men of League Foundation.

The Men of League Foundation is an organisation established to assist the men, women and children in the rugby league family who have fallen on hard times.  There is a common misperception that the Men of League Foundation is just for retired footballers, but Helen Wood-Grant, current National Board Member is working hard with the board to ensure that this message begins to change.  Instead, the message is increasingly being shared that the rugby league family is an inclusive one and that the Men of League Foundation is there to support each and every member of that growing family.

3.  Catherine Harris – Member of the Australian Rugby League Commission

Catherine Harris is currently the only woman on the Australian Rugby League Commission and the woman who boldly declared that she wanted to see a woman on the board of every NRL club by 2014.  We’re not there yet, but part of progress is recognising how far we have come and how much work is left to do.  With several clubs boasting female board members including the Brisbane Broncos, Canberra Raiders, Wests Tigers, Gold Coast Titans and New Zealand Warriors, we are on our way.  Let’s keep going. 

4.  Ruan Sims – Captain of the Jillaroos

Current captain of the Australian Jillaroos, Ruan Sims grew up in a household that loves rugby league.  With brothers Korbin Sims and Tariq Sims (both representative footballers who play for the Newcastle Knights and St George Illawarra Dragons, respectively) Friday night in the Sims household was known as ‘Friday Fight Night’.  Mum would move the couches and it was every person for themselves.  No wonder Ruan grew up to become a pioneer in the game of rugby league for women.

This year has been momentous for the women’s game.  Earlier this year, the Jillaroos Test Match against the Kiwi Ferns was billed as a double-header with the Australian Kangaroos Test Match and was televised on Channel 9.  Jetstar joined Harvey Norman as a sponsor of the team.  The Cronulla Sharks have announced that they will be forming a nines team next year, leading the push to establish a women’s competition and names like Ruan Sims, Kezie Apps and Maddie Studdon are becoming more recognisable.  Watch this space.   

5.  Anita Hagarty – Chairperson at Touch Football Australia

In 2013, the NRL announced a strategic partnership with Touch Football Australia which was recognised as the biggest boost to participation and grass roots development of each game in their respective histories.

Touch football has an incredible story when it comes to participation, with almost 50% of registered players being women and girls.

Anita has been involved with Touch Football for over 30 years in various capacities, including as a coach, player, referee and executive member of the team.  Anita served on the Board of Queensland Touch from 2009-2012 and in 2012 she was elected to the Touch Football Australia Board where she is currently the Chairperson. 

As a game, what we need to continue to do is to ensure that these women and countless others are visible.  Traditionally, when people have thought about the NRL, the only women they can think of associated with the game are cheerleaders and mums who either work in the canteen or cheer their sons on from the sidelines.  These woman are an integral part of the rugby league family, but we need to celebrate all the women who contribute to rugby league in a positive way and encourage more women to put their hands up and be brave enough to say “I want to be involved”.

My hope?  That in 10 years we won’t need to celebrate Women in League round because the female presence in and around the game has become commonplace. We’re not there yet, but we are well on our way.

Love,

Ladies who League xxx

This week, Ladies who League is proudly brought to you by Rugby League Sports Management – nurturing, assisting, supporting and planning for your rugby league career.

Cronulla Sutherland Sharks: A blueprint for success?

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This article was written for and published by The Roar.

Everyone loves a fairytale right? And at the moment, there is no greater fairytale in rugby league than that of the Cronulla Sharks.

With their win over the Newcastle Knights on Sunday afternoon in front of 16,882 fans at Southern Cross Group Stadium, the Cronulla Sharks made it a record-breaking 15 wins in a row and are one step closer to the most sought after prize in rugby league – a premiership.

In the Sharks 49-year history, it is a prize that has never found its way down to the Shire. Could 2016 be their year to dust out the trophy cabinet?

The opposite of a fairy tale in rugby league is a nightmare and 2016 has seen Parramatta Eels fans caught in what seems to be a recurring one. With the Eels loss to the Titans on Saturday night, the hope of playing finals football is now officially over (it is not even a mathematical possibly anymore). At the conclusion of Round 26, the curtain will fall on what has undeniably been one of the worst years in the club’s 69-year history.

A smattering of some of the issues which Eels fans have opened the papers to in 2016 has included breaches of the salary cap dating back to 2013 resulting in loss of competition points, a hefty fine and the stripping of the 2016 Auckland Nines Title, a board who was intent on waging a war with the NRL that it was never going to win, the release of a sex tape featuring Corey Norman, the very real and documented mental health issues of Kieran Foran who has since walked away from the club, rumours about Semi Radradra and a potential shift to French rugby and the loss of Nathan Peats. The cherry on top – the appointment of an administrator last week to provide some stability at the befuddled club.

So what do the two clubs have to do with each other? I am hopeful that the story of the Sharks can provide some much needed inspiration to those at the Eels and demonstrate what is possible.

Two years ago the Sharks were at the lowest of the low – and not just on the ladder. In the midst of an ASADA scandal which cost the club almost $5 million in legal fees, coach Shane Flanagan was banned from the game for a year for his part in the banned substances scandal and irreparable damage done to the reputations of several players, it looked unlikely that the Sharks would even survive the turmoil.

But survive they did and now, led by Paul Gallen and a host of other players including Michael Ennis, Ben Barba, Valentine Holmes, Jack Bird and Luke Lewis, in the space of two years the Sharks have gone from a rabble to genuine Premiership contenders.

This transformation demonstrates the change that can take place at a rugby league club in a very short space of time. I look to the Sharks as a sort of blueprint and hope that now, following the appointment of an administrator at the Eels, the club can begin working towards emulating the success that the Sharks have had, both on and off the field.

Of course there are plenty of moving pieces which contribute to success. For the Sharks, the appointment of a well-balanced board with a genuine mix of business acumen and an understanding of sport has been vital.

This is something that the Eels now genuinely have the opportunity to work toward and finally put the days of factionalism and bickering at a board level in the past, where they belong. A board with a diverse mix of people with the relevant experience will be a welcome change at the club. Rest assured, if this is not achieved, the nightmares of 2016 will inevitably continue.

When I look to the Sharks, however, a couple of other things stand out.

Firstly, coach Shane Flanagan. It has been well documented that when the new board was appointed at the Sharks, that this board was under considerable pressure to get rid of Flanagan. This was a coach under fire and the easy option would have been to punt him. The club showed a tremendous amount of faith by that board to extend the contract of Flanagan and to stick by a coach under siege. In my view, it has paid off.

While Brad Arthur might not personally be a coach that is under siege, it seems that he is under siege from external forces. Similar to Flanagan, I truly believe that Arthur has the ability to galvanise his playing group. You only have to look at what the Eels have achieved on the field as evidence of this.

Say what you will about the Parramatta Eels off the field, but it has truly been remarkable how up until this point of the season, despite all the distractions off the field, the team has managed to continue to turn up and compete on the football field. This is an ability the Eels used to lack in the past, even when everything was going right.

While the Eels have now lost two in a row, this seems to be the result of the season finally catching up to them, including a string of injuries. You would be hard pressed to find a person in Australia who will have been unimpressed at what the Eels have managed to do on the field this year. In fact, most people seem to be in disbelief that the team has been turning up at all.

The stability that Brad Arthur has been able to provide for the squad and the club’s fans cannot be underestimated and if the Eels are to begin moving forward next year, Brad Arthur must be at the centre of forward planning along with a core group of players which will hopefully include the likes of Clint Gutherson, Bevan French, Manu Ma’u, Kaysa Pritchard and Corey Norman.

So to Eels fans, I encourage you to be brave enough to dream about what is truly possible. The Sharks have shown the way. So while Sharks fans might have the joy of singing Up up Cronulla come week one of October this year, my hope is that you’ll hear Parramatta fans cheering ‘we raise our voices to the sky and glorify the Eels’ come week one of October in 2018.

Love,

Ladies who League xxx

Ladies who League catches up with Jillaroo Sam Bremner

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On Saturday at 3pm, the Women’s Interstate Challenge for the Nellie Doherty Cup will be played at CBUS Stadium.  It is going to be a wonderful afternoon of football and will feature as part of a triple-header including the Holden Cup and the game between the Gold Coast Titans and the Eels.

The game will remind you a lot of State of Origin and so will the dominance of the Queensland side who had won the trophy 16 consecutive times until 2014 and then retaining the trophy in a 4-4 draw last year.

The NSW side is stacked with Jillaroos and I can’t wait to cheer on Allana Ferguson, Ruan Sims, Kezie Apps, Rebecca Young and Maddie Studdon.

You will be able to watch the game live on the NRL’s digital app or on replay at 3pm on Sunday.

Earlier this year Yvonne Sampson, Helen Wood-Grant and myself caught up with Sammy Bremner, current Jillaroo a couple of weeks ago and thought we would share that interview with you ahead of the clash on Saturday.

1. Sam on the importance of sponsorship.  Harvey Norman has been a long time supporter of the Jillaroos but just prior to their clash earlier this year with the Kiwi Ferns, Harvey Norman also came on as a sponsor.

“It is really overwhelming.  Every time we come into camp or we have a new campaign there is something exciting happening so it is extremely motivating to be here and perform for everyone.”

2. Sam on the increased support for women’s rugby league this year.

“It wasn’t a lack of respect of talent, I think if anything we need to be showcased.  Once everyone can see that we can play footy just like the boys or just as good as the boys, we earn respect straight away.  I don’t think it was a case that we weren’t respected, it was just that we were never seen.  Thanks to Channel 9 and our sponsors Harvey Norman and Jetstar we are now being showcased.”

3. Sam on the significance of the clash between the Kiwi Ferns and the Jillaroos being billed as a double-header.

“That is so awesome.  It really just motivates us.  Every year there is something new and it makes it even more exciting to come into camp and see the new developments and new ways the NRL is supporting us.”

4. Sam on being an NRL State of Mind ambassador.

“We have had a couple of workshops to get educated on mental health and the programs so that we can go into communities and schools. The NRL is one big family [demonstrated by members of the Jillaroos and Touch Football Australia being named State of Mind ambassadors] and is making a real effort to include everyone.  The State of Mind program is just another example of the NRL trying to incorporate everyone and make everyone feel part of the family.”

5. Sam’s favourite moment in women’s sport this year so far.

“I would have to say the Australian Rugby 7’s women’s team qualifying for the Olympics.  I thought that was awesome.  I know a couple of the girls and I have been following them.  I think it is unbelievable and I love footy so it is great to see that code doing so well.  I am aware of their massive journey that started 4 years ago and it is great to see it pay off.”

I’m looking forward to another massive clash between the NSW and QLD teams on Saturday.  Be sure to tune in to support the girls.

Love,

Ladies who League xxx

Petero Civoniceva chats with Ladies who League ahead of Origin III

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This week before State of Origin, I was lucky enough to catch up with Petero Civoniceva.  Petero is a Queensland State of Origin and Australian international representative.  In 2009 he broke the record for the most international matches for Australia by any forward in history.

His career saw him win 3 Premierships with the Brisbane Broncos in 1998, 2000 and 2006 before ending his career at the Penrith Panthers as captain.

After an epic career which saw him play 309 NRL first grade games, 33 State of Origin games for Queensland and 45 Australian test matches, he is still heavily involved with the NRL as a community ambassador and he has also founded the Petero Civoniceva Foundation, not to mention, being one of the most genuinely delightful rugby league humans I have ever met.

The only negative about catching up with Petero this week was that I really thought we would be talking about the State of Origin decider this week instead of Queensland potentially winning the series in a clean sweep.  Here’s what happened when myself, and Maria Tsialis and Pam Whaley from Big League Magazine had a chat with Petero.

1. Petero on his reaction after seeing Queensland win Game II at Suncorp Stadium and being crowned State of Origin champions for the 10th time in 11 years.

“I was obviously very pleased as a Queensland fan with the team.  We were up for a challenge and in the first 2 games there hasn’t been very much between the two sides for quite some time.  To win in Sydney was a real confidence booster for the team, knowing that they were coming back to Suncorp for Game II.  I thought NSW were tremendous in that second game and there were certainly opportunities there.  Queensland showed tremendous resolve in front of their home crowd.”

2. Petero on his stand out players for the Maroons and the Blues in Games I and II.

“I thought for Queensland it was all the usual suspects, Cameron Smith and Johnathan Thurston.  Queensland have been really fortunate – we can talk about the dominance that Queensland have had in the last decade and it’s those guys that have really driven the Queensland side.  I thought Matt Gillett, my former Broncos team mate has been tremendous and has been a real stand out for Queensland.  For New South Wales, I was really impressed with Tyson Frizell, especially the chase on Dane Gagai who ran almost 100 metres for that try.  Tyson didn’t give up and he is someone that Queensland will definitely be watching for the future and is one of those exciting, young NSW players that will come into play in the next few years.”

3. Petero on whether Matt Gillett could be someone that could potentially lead the Queensland team when Cameron Smith steps down.

“Matt is the kind of guy that lets his actions do the talking.  He has been a real cornerstone for the Broncos over the last couple of years and is still quite young despite the amount of football he has played.  I think he is certainly capable of being a future leader of that Queensland side.”

4. Petero on the debutants like Corey Oates and Gavin Cooper.

“I guess it’s going to be a real challenge for Queensland over the next couple of years – how do you replace some of the game’s greats but Queensland certainly have a group of young men who will mature and look to take their opportunity.  Someone like Gavin Cooper, I have played alongside him at the Penrith Panthers, he is that guy in a team that you can depend on and who will always get the job done.  It’s been good seeing him get selected at the later part of his career and I’m sure he will do Queensland proud.”

5. Petero on Queensland’s dominance over the last 11 years.

“Queensland have created a really strong culture and a culture of really not wanting to let each other down.  I think that is really something that the players really believe in and that’s really key to any sort of team performance when you have a group of people working together, leading each other you can achieve anything.  These guys have really bought into that. 

One of the really great things when Mal Meninga came in in 2006 was that it really gave us the opportunity, early in the piece, to go to a country town and meet the people which is always a great experience.  We have been to all sorts of places – we go straight out to a country town and it is amazing.  People turn up having driven 3-4 hours just to come and see us and get photos and autographs.  It’s really special as a team to have these people cheering us on and that’s what you play for, you play for these people and on a Wednesday night, when you can see them put aside all their hardship to cheer you on, that’s just unbelievable.  That’s the mindset we have had for the last couple of years and it’s not going to go away.”

6. Petero on inspiring Mary K to wear a QLD jersey and the big retirements like Paul Gallen and Corey Parker and their Origin legacy.

“I played for Gal with Australia and he is a tremendous competitor.  He cops a bit of flack in Queensland – he is public enemy number 1 but he doesn’t take it personally and he does whatever it takes to win.  That’s what you love about him as a player because he gives 110% every time he gets on the field.  It has been a tough road for him during Origin, Queensland have been dominant and unfortunately for New South Wales, they have had to endure that disappointment but he has been a great leader.  He leads from the front and he is a man who is well respected.

Certainly with Corey Parker and I was fortunate enough to play alongside him at the Broncos,  again you talk about the competitive nature that Paul Gallen has, he certainly has that as well and he is a guy that leads every time he walks on the field.  He has also been able to play with a level of consistency for quite a number of years and that has seen him rise and be regarded as one of Queensland’s greats – deservedly so. 

Tomorrow night the curtain will fall on both of their Origin careers and  it will be sad to see but the exciting thing is we talk about men like Matt Gillett and Tyson Frizell who are the next generation of players.”

7. Petero’s prediction for Wednesday night.

“I’m sorry Mary, you aren’t going to like it.  I think it will be another tough game.  I think New South Wales will definitely be inspired by Paul Gallen and having him finish on a high note.  I was fortunate enough to be in Queensland camp, the boys are really pumped for this one and there is an opportunity for them to make history and I have also spoken about Corey Parker’s last game and the boys want to win for him.  Both sides have plenty of inspiration for this one and it will be exciting for this one, I’ll be cheering them on from the stands.”

8. Petero on his work off the field including being a Community Ambassador for the NRL.

“I’ve been really fortunate, when I finished my rugby league career, the NRL got in touch with me about being involved with One Community and when the opportunity came up to be an NRL Ambassador, I also jumped at the opportunity.  I love the game and the game has given me so much and if the profile that I have been able to create for myself in the game can help deliver programs all over Australia and the Pacific, I want to be part of it.  I travel all over Australia and it is amazing to visit the communities and I have been so fortunate to be part of so many wonderful things and leverage the game I love so much.”

Love,

Ladies who League xxx

Mary Konstantopoulos: Letter from the editor

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This letter was first written for and published by SBS Zela.

Today’s special guest editor is Mary Konstantopoulos, a 27 year old lawyer who loves sport, particularly rugby league and the Parramatta Eels.

Hi Everyone

My passion for rugby league and the Eels has led me to begin a blog called ‘Ladies who League’ which encourages women to get involved in conversations about rugby league.  Since then, the blog has become a podcast, episodes of which you can find here and there have been several spin off blogs including ‘Ladies who Legspin’, ‘Ladies who Lineout’ and ‘Ladies who Leap’.   It truly is a joy to be able to be an advocate for the sports I love so much.

SBS Zela is a website I visit everyday. In a year that has been ground breaking for women’s sport, led by teams like the Matildas, the Australian Rugby 7’s Women’s Team, the Southern Stars and athletes like Bronte and Cate Campbell, it is wonderful to have a website dedicated not only to sharing women’s sports results, but also helping everyone get to know our female athletes better.

But back to rugby league.  Often when I declare that I am a passionate rugby league fan, I am met with surprised looks – “how could a girl like you like rugby league?”  Whenever I am asked this question I am firstly baffled (what should girls like me enjoy?) and then become determined to change that person’s mind.

The articles that I have decided to share with all of you today is my attempt to highlight to all of you just how involved women are in rugby league and that the game is committed to ensuring that women are welcome in all aspects of the rugby league family.

From Marina Go, chairperson at Wests Tigers; Raelene Castle, Bulldogs CEO; Yvonne Sampson, the first woman to anchor State of Origin coverage; and referees Belinda Sleeman and Kasey Badger.

Then there are our Jillaroos who, for the first time this year, were broadcast on Channel Nine, as well as the countless female fans and volunteers who are part of the rugby league family.

I hope you enjoy the pieces and the next time that someone says to you that ‘rugby league is a male dominated sport’, join with me and prove them wrong. 

Love

Mary K and Ladies who League xxx