“I remember representing NSW, we had to get dressed in a carpark. We were playing at Penrith Stadium, but we weren’t allowed into the actual stadium or the dressing sheds, we had to get dressed out in the carpark,” says current New South Wales women’s coach Kylie Hilder.
The Blues mentor has been in and around the game for over 20 years, watching it grow from an afterthought of the governing body, to now selling out State of Origin games and having its own national competition.
She has represented her state and country while also working as a development officer for the NRL in the Hunter region. Alongside her coaching position, she is also the female pathways development manager for the NSWRL.
Hilder adds that when she was first representing New South Wales and Australia 11 years ago, the women weren’t even given their own jerseys. They were often left overs from the junior and senior male representative sides.
“We were putting on jerseys that were basically hand-me-downs from a boys or a men’s side, they were five times too big. We went across to New Zealand to play for the Jillaroos and we were given jerseys that were just an old set of men’s jerseys, no one knew we were over there.”
Women’s rugby league in Australia isn’t a new thing. 2021 marks 100 years since the first sanctioned and organised women’s rugby league matches were played under the New South Wales Rugby League.
In May 1921 Nellie Doherty and Mollie Cane petitioned the governing body to organise and provide support for a women’s competition, citing the success of women’s football in Europe.
The NSWRL originally declined, but a few days later it backflipped on the original decision, agreeing to provide the ladies everything they needed to get a competition up and running.
A total of 50 women met with the NSWRL at Phillip Street to set down the formation of the competition.
Five clubs were formed at the meeting, consisting of Glebe-Balmain, Newtown-South Sydney, St George-WesternSuburbs-University, North Sydney and Eastern Suburbs.
NSWRL secretary Horrie Miller supported the women’s game, telling those who opposed them on the basis the sport was too rough;
“You don’t need to take too much notice of the opposition to the scheme, or the gloomy predictions about the ill-effects inseparable from such a strenuous game. A game is what its participants make it.
“If men want to make rugby rough they can turn it into a slaughteryard. I am not going to say rugby league is the best game in the world. This is an age of changes and we must advance with the times.
“I can’t see how one girl’s life can be ruined if she bumps into another girl. I think the girls are as hard as the men!”
The women trained every Friday for three months prior to the first game being played.
The first ever women’s match kicked off on 17 September 1921 at the Sydney Agricultural Ground before a crowd of 20,000.
The final decade of the 20th century was a period in which women’s rugby league began to evolve.
In 1993 the Australian women’s rugby league team was formed with the side receiving its official status in 1995 when it came under the Australian Rugby League umbrella.
The squads of the era featured names such as Tarsha Gale, Karyn Murphy, Katrina Fanning, Nat Dwyer and current Queensland coach Tahnee Norris.
Still, despite being an official Australian side, challenges remained.
There are stories of players walking around the grounds they were supposed to be playing on and assisting ground staff in removing broken bottles and plastic.
If they wanted to head overseas for matches or tournaments, there was no support coming from the governing body. The players had to pay their own way, sometimes selling cars, organising raffles and quitting their jobs.
As Hilder mentioned, even in 2009 the women were playing in hand-me-downs.
It was during the 90s that the Jillaroos name was coined. While accounts differ as to how it originated, former player and then-board member Annie Banks said that she and Veronica White workshopped the moniker before registering it.
The Jillaroos refers to the female equivalent of the Jackaroo – a young person in training on a sheep or cattle farm.
In 1999 the Interstate Challenge was organised with the games between NSW and Queensland being played under State of Origin rules but not receiving official Origin status from the NRL.
Hilder came to rugby league via touch football and said that in the 2000s, it was harder to make the Australian touch side, than it was the tackle side.
“I walked away from playing rugby league after the year I represented because I felt it was just too easy to represent my country. I was a touch player where I’d worked for six years to get an Australian jersey. I decided to go and play rugby league and played three games and ended up playing for Australia. It just didn’t have the same feeling for me.”
In 2000 the first women’s World Cup was held, followed by another in 2003 and again in 2008. New Zealand won the first three consecutive World Cups and were clearly the world number one.
In 2013, then-NRL CEO David Smith backed the Jillaroos, providing them with the funding and support needed to travel to England for that year’s World Cup.
With a strong team and financial backing, the Jillaroos broke New Zealand’s stranglehold on the women’s game as they won the World Cup for the first time.
They backed that up by defending their title on home soil in 2017.
In 2021, the women’s World Cup was scheduled to be played concurrently for the first time with the men’s and wheelchair competitions.
Developing the future
The women’s game has come on in leaps and bounds in the past 20 years. From hand-me-down jerseys to now playing in front of packed houses, it’s deserved recognition for a lot of hard work.
But much of the game’s current and future success relies on the talent pathways being set up and maintained.
With the NRLW being introduced in 2018 alongside official Women’s State of Origin matches being recognised, the junior talent pool has increased exponentially, and it’s something Hilder is excited about.
“It’s great that the Knights have got a team in (the NRLW) for this year and I remember I was part of the working committee that got that Newcastle women’s competition up and running in Newcastle. Five years ago we started with a Nines where we were getting 50 girls on a Friday afternoon, to now we’ve got 13s, 15s, 17s and Opens being played at Newcastle. Which is now that clear pathway for the girls in that Newcastle region to go into the Newcastle Knights.”
But it’s not just the Newcastle and Hunter region that is benefitting from the professionalisation of women’s rugby league.
The game as a whole is growing throughout New South Wales.
“We’ve got over 20,000 females playing our game now. So when you look back at the stats of when we first started women’s rugby league in NSW completely, our game for women’s participation is up 23 percent for this year.
“And that’s obviously coming from clear pathways, girls seeing that there are so many more opportunities now to play the game. Playing NRLW, playing Origin, we’ve got City-Country games, we’ve got our Country Champs. There are so many more opportunities for females right across now,” Hilder says.
Despite its growth in recent seasons, junior women’s rugby league, like a lot of junior pathways, relies on funding from governing bodies to funnel those talented players through the pipeline.
“The challenges I’ve got at the moment just with NSWRL, trying to get some increased regional participation in competitions, it does come down to funding and obviously from the NRL. We’re always asking for some funding to get new things happening. We’re looking at some funding at the moment for our regional areas to go into setting up female academies in each of our 10 regions.”
While regional areas are more reliant on support from governing bodies, Hilder says much of the Sydney metropolitan area has the benefit of now being supported by NRL clubs as more women’s teams are handed licences.
With the Parramatta Eels and Sydney Roosters both having NRLW sides, they now provide funding and support to much of their local player catchments.
Outside of the NRLW, South Sydney, the Wests Tigers and Cronulla Sharks all field sides in the Harvey Norman Women’s Premiership. While strong rugby league junior clubs Cabramatta, St Mary’s Leagues, Mounties, North Sydney Bears, Wentworthville Magpies and Glebe Dirty Reds also play in the state’s premier women’s competition.
“Metro Sydney is in a better position because a lot of those sides are aligned with NRL clubs now so they’re getting a little bit of funding passed on through their clubs. The funding is a massive thing and then obviously having the right personnel driving it. You’ve got to have the right people behind it for women’s rugby league in each of those areas,” says Hilder.
2021 marked the first year both Women’s Origin teams were coached by women. Hilder, alongside her Queensland counterpart and former Jillaroo Tahnee Norris headed up their respective states.
Jason Hetherington had been the inaugural Women’s Origin coach for Queensland while Andy Patmore was the coach for New South Wales.
Hilder says the twin appointments show there are good quality female coaches ready to make the step up to the top levels of the game, while the NSWRL invests heavily in ensuring the future generations of female coaches are brought through the system.
“I think me being appointed NSW coach has shown that there are good quality women out there and if they want to coach there are opportunities. A big thing we’re doing at NSW is Dave Trodden’s (NSWRL CEO) currently putting together a coaching module that will be run through UNE specifically to help female coaches take that next step into their coaching career and it’ll be a bit of a mentoring program as well. They’ll do the course, they’ll be given all the tools they need, then they can step out of that and go and do some mentoring with a NSW Cup coach or an NRL coach.”
She adds that a driver of the new NSW female coaching module is the large number of men often completing coaching courses, which can sometimes see the women take a backseat.
“I did my Level Two coaching course at the beginning of the year and I was in a room of 30 men and the only female and unfortunately that’s very common. It’s mainly because, even for me and I’ve been in and around the game, it’s quite intimidating to have to go in and do a course where you’re surrounded by 30 men.
“Some of these guys were ex-NRL players, and these courses are quite elite. You can’t just sit back and listen and think you’re going to get ticked off, you’ve got to get in and get involved. I think that’s a big fear factor for a lot of females is having to put themselves in those situations.”
With the continued development of female coaches, there will undoubtedly be questions about when we will see the first female coach in the NRL. The NFL and AFL have already seen female coaches among their ranks, and it’s something Hilder says she hopes to see happen soon, but doesn’t want to see a token appointment.
“I’m a big believer that the coach should be the best available coach. It shouldn’t matter whether they’re female or male. So, in saying that, if there’s a really good female that should be coaching a club, then she should be given the job. But then if there’s a really good male coach that wants to do a job with a female team, then he should be given that job as well.
“We just want to make sure we’re not doing that token female coach because it’s a female team. It should be the best person for the job.”
Coaching in the NRLW is also something Hilder has been approached about, but given her role for the NSWRL, not a responsibility she can take on at the moment.
“I was offered a couple of roles with the NRL but it’s really hard being the Origin coach and then taking on the role of an NRLW club because a lot of work has already been done by the coaches for the NRLW.
“During that time I was really, really busy with getting together an Origin side and looking after Origin. So there is a conflict there. So moving forward it will be making a decision on where I want to be. But I really love doing the Origin job and am happy to stay there.”
The Expansion Question
As the men’s game grapples with the admission of a fourth Queensland team and the possibility of a second New Zealand team, the NRLW has expanded to include three new clubs for the 2021 season, while there are calls to expand State of Origin to a three match series.
The expansion of both the NRLW and Women’s Origin is on the NRL’s agenda, but will also require a firm base to expand on. For the 2021 season the NRLW has a player points cap to try and ensure a fair distribution of talent without capping a player’s earning potential.
Chief among player concerns is their pay. None of the women in the NRLW are full time athletes, with all of them holding down full or part time jobs while also looking after their families.
It’s a balancing act Hilder says the NRL has to get right if it wants to expand both Origin and the NRLW season.
“We’ve had discussions just recently in regards to that (expanding Origin). Especially after we just lost by two points so we’d love to have another game. But it also comes down to our athletes. It’s a bit of a strain on them as it is with the amount of football that they have to play and then the amount of time that they need to take off work.
“Until our girls are full time athletes or paid well enough that they don’t also have to hold down a full time job I don’t see how we can add in more games of Origin, especially when NRLW is expanding.”
Currently the women are in camp for a week in the lead up to Origin, while the NRLW season is slated to last seven weeks including finals this year. Hilder says there were issues this year with some players needing to come into camp late due to work commitments, meaning an expansion to Origin would be nearly impossible if the work and pay remained the same.
“We had a couple of girls even this year that had to come in a little bit late, or couldn’t make it on time because they had work to get to before they actually came into camp. Those types of factors need to be taken into consideration. So it’s more the player welfare side of it.”
That being said, the players still want to see both the NRLW and Origin series expand.
“I know the girls would love to have another Origin, but obviously not having the stress of work as well. And it’s not just work, it’s family life as well. We’ve got wives and mothers and they’ve got to work all of that around them as well.”