The women in my rugby league

As we celebrate the contribution of women in wide-ranging roles across all levels of the game, this week I thought I would cast my mind back through the decades to the women who have been a part of my rugby league.

This weekend’s round of Intrust Super Cup and NRL games are officially Women in League Round, an opportunity to acknowledge the valuable input made by women to the game and why the game is stronger for their involvement.

Ironically, when I was growing up in Coffs Harbour, my mum was a woman who tried to keep me out of rugby league for as long as she could.

I read Big League religiously, collected footy cards, played after school with my mates and in school carnivals in primary school, but it wasn't until I was 14 that Mum gave me clearance to play for the Coffs Harbour Comets.

Having played soccer and flirted with baseball, I staged a one-man strike in the winter of 1990 at which point Mum realised she had to relent. But it came at a cost.

We went to Imperial Sports Power in town, bought an Albion headgear that Steve Menzies would later make fashionable and Wayne Pearce shoulder pads that had four different plates for protection, including one down the front over my ribs and one that stretched halfway down my back.

Wanting more than anything just to play I agreed, but felt slightly self-conscious when I turned up to the first training run of the year and looked like I was preparing to take flight.

Blokes I played with on the weekend teased my academic ways when we were at school and this footy fashion faux pas wasn’t helping.

But that was the deal we struck and I wore those stupid-looking things for two years so Mum could feel a little bit better about me playing rugby league. (And I guess her argument would be that in two years I never got seriously injured.)

The greatest growth in participation in recent years has come in the female sector and I was exposed to the skill and toughness of women playing footy in my third year of university.

Two of my female housemates signed up to play rugby union and wanting to be supportive, I went along to their first game, chauvinistically thinking they'd have a giggle, fall over each other and maybe score a try or two.

They absolutely belted the bejesus out of each other and without years of perfecting technique behind them, simply ripped in in one of the most physical games of footy I’d ever seen.

It's why I have enjoyed covering the emergence of the women's game at an elite level over the past three years in particular and why I tell mates at every opportunity to watch the girls have a game; to a man they come away enthralled at what they have witnessed.

The recent Interstate Challenge on the Gold Coast was decided by the relatively small scoreline of 8-4, but only those who were there or who watched it on TV know how exciting it was and the extraordinary displays of defensive resolve from both teams.

In my previous role as Editor of Big League I worked on a daily basis with two highly professional female journalists who even in this modern age didn’t always receive the same treatment as their male counterparts.

I'll never forget receiving a call late on a Friday night because a staff member had been refused entry to the area in a team's change rooms where media was to be conducted because she was female.

She was distraught, I was fuming and NRL officials acted swiftly, but it highlights the fact that as far as we have come in some areas there is still a way to go.

This week I have had the pleasure of speaking to two women who hold senior and critical roles at the Broncos and Titans and last Saturday the Greater Brisbane Junior Rugby League honoured Sherryl Verreyt from the Banyo Rugby League Club as their Female Volunteer of the Year.

In 1985, Sherryl became Brisbane's first female referee and 32 years on is still blowing her whistle and imparting her knowledge and experience on to junior referees coming through the ranks.

She is at the club six days a week – six! – performing all manner of roles and blazed the trail for current female referees such as Belinda Sleeman and Kasey Badger.

I know that at all footy clubs, the female contributors are highly valued and respected, but if you're out at a game this weekend, take the time to make them feel that little bit more appreciated.

The game wouldn't be the same without them.

A former editor of Big League, Tony Webeck is the Chief Queensland Correspondent for NRL.com.

(Image: Queensland Women's and Jillaroos captain Steph Hancock leads Queensland onto the field).