Stuff that matters

People often ask me about how I can tell women’s footy is growing in a meaningful way. I feel it a lot when I’m out in public. Back when I was starting my rugby sevens career and we were out and about as a team wearing our green-and-gold uniforms, strangers would approach us and ask what sport we played. They generally assumed it was netball or volleyball or waterpolo. When we told them we played rugby, they were surprised and said we didn’t look like rugby players.

That really highlighted for me the image around what a female rugby or rugby league player looks like, and the narrative that women don’t play contact sport. Over the years I have witnessed a gradual change in that narrative, a removal of that stigma. And not just in the eyes of strangers, either. In rugby league – the code I play now – we are well looked after, with administration support, excellent facilities and coaching staff and deserving broadcast exposure.

I suppose another barometer for progress is an acknowledgment that you can’t be what you can’t see. When I was younger my only two female idols were Cathy Freeman and Jana Pittman, and that was because I was also a track-and-field sprinter. Given the paucity of high-profile female league players, though, I looked up to Greg Inglis, Billy Slater and Darren Lockyer.

There were female rugby league players around at the time, but they weren’t put in front of the younger generation in any meaningful way, and we didn’t really get to see what they did until I stepped into the professional environment. I know that the majority of the playing group who are around my age and older can attest to that. We all have really similar stories.

I also recognise that I am benefiting from the work of players who came before me. I don’t have to raise money or sell my car to fund my own trips to play for Australia or New South Wales. I have a uniform I didn’t have to pay for. I even have a boot sponsor, which is just unreal. Last year, when the NRLW was postponed due to the pandemic, our sponsors helped us navigate those waters financially. That whole support network never existed 10 years ago.

It makes a huge difference for an athlete in that it allows us to focus solely on what we’re supposed to do, rather than have all of the burdens and stress that our male counterparts haven’t had to worry about for decades.

These improvements are really drummed into the elite players of today, because the young players coming through don’t always understand. They walk into a squad and are given their kit, and have come to expect that. And that’s a good thing – we should expect it, and we are sick of having those conversations about how we should just be grateful to be here. We are well beyond that now. I suppose it is more just ensuring that we all have an appreciation of what others have been through to get us to this point, to prevent the younger girls from developing a sense of entitlement that can become a detriment to their careers.

And it is important to involve men in these conversations. Some male players are just completely unaware of some of the challenges we face, but I know from experience that once we get them up to speed, the majority put their hand up in support. It can be something as small as sharing something on social media to their often male-dominant follower base, which helps our game gain traction or shifts the narrative. It opens their eyes, because while many of the men have partners at home who help with the kids and support them as professional athletes, some of the girls who have had kids are organising their family and their home and then training and playing on top of that.

That’s a big part of why I like dedicated rounds such as the NRL’s women in league round and multicultural round, which is also special to me because have Pacific Island heritage. The women’s round acknowledges every woman involved in rugby league, from the female players, coaches, referees and administrators down to the grassroots and the mums who are cutting up oranges for the under-10s. It also celebrates the support networks surrounding the men – the wives and the mums who raised these athletes.

In the game there is a lot to be excited about, with the expansion of the State of Origin to two games and maybe even three, and the NRLW from six teams to 10 in 2023. Peter V’landys said this week that all 16 NRL clubs will have an NRLW team as soon as possible. That is genuine, tangible change, which is the confirmation that we’re on the right track.