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'It was a very special moment... but as a referee, not a female'

When Brittanee Stephan's name was listed in bold to officiate Saturday's Under 18 Nev Blair decider alongside two other female officials, the appointment was a momentous one for the Brisbane Rugby League Referees Association. 

But for the 21-year-old, her main feeling of pride wasn't because the all-female trio of Stephan, Kate Hickey and Amy Campbell was the first in Rugby League Brisbane finals history, but because their hard work, dedication and determination had been recognised.

"I think it's fantastic we had an all female officiating squad, but at the end of the day, we're all referees and we've all tried to master our craft so we would get to where we are," the budding referee said.

"We've all worked extremely hard throughout the season, like everyone else has, and having the two girls on my sideline made it even more special because I know how hard they worked to get their appointment."

2020 Nev Blair grand final match officials Kate Hickey, Brittanee Stephan and Amy Campbell.
2020 Nev Blair grand final match officials Kate Hickey, Brittanee Stephan and Amy Campbell.

Hailing from a family with rugby league generationally instilled in their DNA, Stephan's pathway holding the whistle came unwittingly after being "spiteful" of a decision made at her younger brother's junior game in 2015.

"I was at a game one day watching my younger brother play and there was a high shot on him which then resulted in a spear tackle as well... but the referee only penalised it," Stephan said. 

"Peter Hill (from the BRL referees association) was there, and I didn't know who he was at the time, but I walked up to him knowing that he was associated with the referees and asked him how the referee could've come up with that decision, considering I thought it was a send-off offence because it was under 14s.

"After having the conversation with Peter, I walked up to our secretary and questioned how to become a referee, but I asked it not because I was necessarily interested in refereeing, but I was genuinely curious because I didn't understand how the referee would go out there and make the wrong call.

"Two weeks later, my dad received an email from the club secretary saying she had signed me up for the next referees course.

"I've always wanted to be involved in the game... I played a lot of touch growing up and always wanted to play rugby league, but my parents didn't let me.

"It wasn't really a big thing for girls to be playing junior footy when I was growing up... you might've seen one or two girls in the junior competition compared to nowadays with the NRLW.

"So I went and sat the course and the following week, I was appointed to my first ever under 6 game at Arana Hills.

"I went on the field and absolutely loved it."

From that day on, the 2014 Miss Junior Rugby League felt like she belonged on the footy field with a whistle or flag in her hand.

Stephan was one of the match officials at this year's Holcim Cup. Photo: Cameron Stallard/QRL
Stephan was one of the match officials at this year's Holcim Cup. Photo: Cameron Stallard/QRL

"All my life I felt like I hadn't fit in anywhere," Stephan said.

"I was interested in dance, but didn't enjoy the girly side of dancing and I always loved athletics and did athletics at school, but it was only something I'd do at school because I could do it there... I wasn't really interested in joining Little A's or something similar.

"Rugby league was always a consistent factor in my family and I can remember ever since I was little watching the footy with my family as it's something that brings us together.

"That first game being a referee was probably the first time I felt like I belonged somewhere and I came off the field absolutely ecstatic and continued refereeing every week."

Stephan continued to grow her refereeing career in the years following her debut, joining QRL's High Performance Unit in 2017, before becoming one of the faces of the NRL's Harvey Norman Women in League Round last season after overcoming adversity during the year.

"2019 was a big year for me. I was exposed to many opportunities and to be honest, I have Steve Clark and Alan Shortall to thank; they really took me under their wing at the (Harvey Norman) Women's National Championships and really helped me," Stephan said.

"I got to a point where I hadn't lost interest, but doubted my ability after receiving a bit of criticism leading up to it and was considering giving it away.

"It wasn't until the national carnival when I dealt with Steve and Alan that they made me realise my love for it all over again and that I shouldn't let the criticism get to me and stop the one thing that I absolutely love and am so passionate about."

2019 Women's National Championships grand final match officials Brittanee Stephan, Kara-Lee Nolan and Kailey Beattie.
2019 Women's National Championships grand final match officials Brittanee Stephan, Kara-Lee Nolan and Kailey Beattie.

Although Stephan idolises whistleblowers Matt Cecchin and Chris Butler for not only their on-field performance, but determination to overcome the unique challenges of being a first grade referee, she believes fellow Queensland female official Belinda Sharpe has paved the way for young girls who have a dream to make it to the top.

"Belinda is a fantastic referee and has created a clear pathway for women in league and it's great that young girls can see her in that arena," Stephan said.

"There's now that vision for females that you can get there too."

With the number of female officials in Queensland continuing to grow year-on-year, the Brisbane trio were not the only all-women finals team at the weekend; with Yeleena Harradine, Tori Wilkie and Isabella Davidson in charge of the South East Queensland Women's premiership decider on Sunday.

SEQW Premiership match officials Yeleena Harradine, Tori Wilkie and Isabella Davidson. Photo: Cameron Stallard/QRL
SEQW Premiership match officials Yeleena Harradine, Tori Wilkie and Isabella Davidson. Photo: Cameron Stallard/QRL

History was also made in Toowoomba earlier this season when Rachel Redlich, Samantha Morgan and Chelsea Middleton became the first all-female team to control a game in Toowoomba.

Although proud of being part of the historic finals accolade, Stephan believes it was her and her counterparts' hard work that earned them their appointments for Saturday's decider.

"For me, it was a very special moment... but as a referee, not a female," Stephan said.

"Through this season, all three of us have worked extremely hard to get where we are... I mean, Amy had to overcome an injury this season to be here.

"To accomplish something together like officiating the Nev Blair grand final is really special; not because we're females, but because we've all worked so incredibly hard to get here.

"We defeated all the criticism, overcame all the challenges and are at the highest point we can be in junior league... so all the hard work has paid off."

Gearing up to re-join the High Performance Unit when the statewide competitions season resumes in 2021, Stephan is hoping others can follow in her footsteps, but in their own individual way.

"One thing I always get asked is... 'who would you like to be?'... 'would you like to be a Belinda Sharpe or would you like to be a Kasey Badger?'

Queensland referee Belinda Sharpe is set to officiate this Sunday's NRLW decider.
Queensland referee Belinda Sharpe is set to officiate this Sunday's NRLW decider.

"For a long time I used to answer that question with one of those two answers, but it wasn't until I really thought about it that I thought... I don't want to be a Belinda Sharpe or a Kasey Badger... I want to be a Brittanee Stephan.

"I want to bring into the game my personality and my way of refereeing because that is who I am. 

"That's my advice. Just be yourself.

"Go out there, don't try to be anyone else and referee how you referee and don't care what anyone else thinks.

"What matters most is how you hold yourself out on the footy field, what you think of yourself and how hard you work."