When I look back at my early years of watching and following rugby league, I do so with a slight sense of shame.
As a young girl, it never occurred to me that women could play rugby league. In fact, I don't even remember asking my parents whether girls could play footy. In my young mind, footy was a game for the boys.
I might be being too harsh on my young self because the reality is that you can't be what you don't see and for the longest time women in rugby league were almost invisible.
Not just when it came to playing rugby league but also being involved in the game in other capacities, whether that be in the media, at a grassroots level or in the administration of our game.
How times have changed.
For boys and girls growing up who love their footy, just as I did all those years ago, the landscape is now so different. In the last couple of years, we have had so many landmark moments involving women in rugby league.
Belinda Sharpe hopes she is the first of many female referees
Some of my favourites have included:
- When Jessica Yates, Yvonne Sampson, Hannah Hollis and Lara Pitt became the first women to host the Dally M Awards in 2017;
- When the Australian Jillaroos won the Rugby League World Cup in 2017 and the subsequent announcement about the launch of the Holden Women's Premiership which began in 2018;
- The appointment of several talented women to the Australian Rugby League Commission including Professor Megan Davis and Amanda Laing (who have followed in the footsteps of Cathy Harris);
- Seeing an injection of women into the administration of our game including Lynne Anderson (Chairperson at the Canterbury Bulldogs), Katrina Fanning (Board Member at the Canberra Raiders) and Julie Sibraa (Board Member at the Manly Sea Eagles);
- The continued growth and success of the Women's State of Origin which this year had over 10,000 in attendance at North Sydney Oval and over one million people watching on television
But there's been one milestone which many of us have been waiting for quite some time for and in this round, our game will reach it.
It was announced on Monday that Belinda Sharpe (nee Sleeman) would become the first woman to referee an NRL fixture when she takes the field on Thursday night for the Broncos-Bulldogs match at Suncorp Stadium.
This progression followed the announcement at the start of the year that both Belinda and Kasey Badger would become the first women to be promoted to the full-time NRL Referee squad.
This meant a couple of things for Belinda. She had to make the move down to Sydney from Brisbane to join the rest of the squad, but additionally, it has meant that she no longer needs to juggle a second-job, given the full-time nature of her refereeing contract. That means more time to concentrate on becoming the best referee she can be.
For Belinda, this moment has been a long time coming. She is a talented and passionate referee and for her, it will be extremely rewarding to know that she has can pursue a full-time career in the game that she loves.
But even more significantly, having Belinda visible in the centre of the field will demonstrate to young men and women all over the country that there is an opportunity for women to progress to the highest level of our game as an official.
No longer will little girls grow up across the country loving rugby league knowing that anything is possible in the game.
Annesley won't rule anything out
With role models across the game like Belinda Sharpe, Lynne Anderson, Ali Brigginshaw and Corban McGregor, the future for women in our game looks bright.
As for Belinda, I want to congratulate her on achieving such a special milestone in her refereeing career. I hope she enjoys every single moment and that the game on Thursday is the first of many which she will officiate during her career.
I would also encourage her to remember the significance of this moment and the impact that she will have on many girls and young women across the country who now have the opportunity to be what they can see in front of them.
The views in this article do not necessarily express the opinions of the NRL, ARLC, NRL clubs or state associations.