“Everything has a beginning”: Celebrating the centenary of Women’s Rugby League
This article is heavily indebted to the scholarly work done by Katherine Haines, "Baulking at Shadows: The truth about the Rugby Girls, Sydney, 1921", published in Sporting Traditions, May 2021.
If you walk around Sydney’s Moore Park, the sporting history is everywhere. Home to the Sydney Cricket Ground and Sydney Football Stadium, as well as the headquarters of the NRL, there are statues of Don Bradman, Richie Benaud, Dally Messenger and Reg Gasnier to remind you that you are standing on some of the most hallowed ground in Australian sport.
You won’t, however, find record of one of the most influential sporting fixtures in Australian history, which took place a century ago to the day in this same part of the Eastern Suburbs.
September 17, 2021 marks the 100th anniversary of the first game of women’s rugby league, played in Moore Park on what was previously the showgrounds of the Royal Agricultural Society.
That game, between the Sydney Reds and Metropolitan Blues, was played in front of a crowd estimated at 20-30,000 people and bore a striking resemblance to the original game of rugby league in Australia, played in the same location just 13 years prior, in the sense that it was done without the approval of the prevailing authorities and despite their best efforts to stop it.
The genesis of the match in Moore Park had come several months before, when two women, Molly Cane and Nellie Doherty, had contacted the New South Wales Rugby League (NSWRL) in May 1921 with the intention of forming a new competition.
That letter became a public meeting at the league’s Phillip Street HQ in central Sydney, in which a crowd of more than 50 women gathered to discuss the Ladies League, as it was to be known.
With the backing of the NSWRL, they began training three times a week, designing kits based on those worn in the nascent women’s soccer competitions in Europe, and forming a committee to administer the league.
“Everything has a beginning,” said NSWRL secretary Horrie Miller. “Why should not women have football?” The authorities would provide a referee and access to the Showgrounds in Moore Park, with a game scheduled for September 17.
Miller would change his tune. Just days before the first game was scheduled to be played, the NSWRL pulled their support, with Horrie Miller threatening anyone associated with the Ladies League with a ban from rugby league if they assisted it.
The reasoning behind their change of heart was that the Ladies League had signed a deal with a private promotional company that would finance the event, with 10% of takings going to fund the women’s competition going forwards.
The promoter, Mick Simmons Ltd, was a sporting goods manufacturer and used the game as a marketing opportunity for their star turn, Dally Messenger, to promote his new football, which would be used for the game.
The irony was stark: Messenger had played in the inaugural game of rugby league in Australia under threat of a ban by the higher-ups in rugby union, and was now part of a new rebel game that faced similar threats from the rugby league authorities.
The NSWRL were instead promoting a competing event, held at Eastern Suburbs’ ground in a different part of Moore Park, and turned their back on the Ladies League. The women were not impressed and redoubled efforts towards their own fixture.
“Our signing up with promoters has evidently courted Mr Miller’s and League’s displeasure, but the ladies are not in the least perturbed at the N.S.W. Rugby League’s threats to disqualify the players of the early fixtures, and the ladies will carry on their game in good football form,” wrote Eulalie Stagpoole, secretary of Ladies League, who played in that first game.
When the game began on the afternoon of Saturday, 17th September 1921, a crowd of between 20 and 30,000 had assembled. Many had seen the game as a joke event - as had been common, too, in women’s soccer matches in England - but the press recorded the seriousness of the fixtures and the high skill level on display.
“The football generally was so good that the suggestion was made that some of the players were boys,” wrote The Daily Telegraph. “But it was not based on truth. Those who had come to laugh settled down to watch a machine-like display of correct football.”
Nellie Doherty, one of the original petitioners, captained the Metropolitan Blues side, but the star was Maggie Moloney, a 15-year-old Irish girl who stole the show with her fast-paced play on the wing for the Blues.
In its early years, rugby league had been rooted in the working class, Irish Catholic areas of Sydney, so it was no surprise that its first female star also came from those origins, living and working in the Surry Hills and Redfern districts to the west of the Showgrounds.
Moloney’s brother played at the famous South Sydney club, and she would go on to be the first female rugby league star, with the papers dubbing her ‘the rugby girl’.
She scored four tries, and the journalists wrote of the crowd cheering her every touch of the ball. At the end of the game, which finished 21-11 to Metropolitan, they wrote: “Maggie remained still while cartoonists sketched hurried outlines of her pretty face, told her age unhesitatingly, smiled prettily and walked off a happy girl for Surry Hills and home.”
The game was a huge success, but it would not last for the Ladies League. Two years later, they had disbanded.
The story behind Ladies League’s end was not so much that they were women, but what they represented: a separately organised competition, beyond the auspices of the NSWRL, which could potentially challenge the then-fledgling authorities for control of rugby league in Australia. If the women could do it, then the potential for Queensland, or for works leagues, or anyone else who could find a promoter and break away was also there.
While that never transpired, the NSWRL would not countenance anything involving women playing rugby league for decades. The women who played that day would continue to achieve on the sports field - Maggie Moloney nearly qualified for the 1928 Olympics in athletics - but in rugby league, women were largely seen only in administrative roles.
The birth of the modern women’s game was tied up in the women’s movement in the North of England in the post-era, with leagues starting in Cumbria in the late 1950s and growing all through to a national competition in the 1980s. In 1993, Sophie Cox became the first woman to play at Wembley, appearing for Rochdale Schools: she went one further than Maggie Moloney, going on to represent Great Britain at judo in the Olympic Games in 2004.
By the 1990s, an international game had formed and Great Britain toured Australia, though again, it was off their own back: players had to provide £700 of their own money to play. Even today, the first Great Britain Lionesses remain without official cap numbers or recognition.
The stories of those tours remain little known, though they will soon be told through the Jackie Sheldon Collection, named for the coach who kept the documents, statistics and details of the Lionesses from their inception in 1985 to their official recognition in 2003 in her attic. Those stories, such as that of Lisa McIntosh, the first black woman to captain Great Britain in any major sport, will form part of the Women’s Rugby League Hall of Fame in Huddersfield.
The tours in the 1990s saw Great Britain face an Australian Women’s team who had undergone their own struggles for recognition: there were stories that in Queensland, female players had to bribe male referees with beer to get them to officiate their games.
2017 was a watershed year for the women’s game in Australia with a home Rugby League World Cup played in October and November.
It was the first time that the Women’s Rugby League World Cup was played as a stand-alone competition rather than part of the Festival of World Cups, with players not being asked to foot their own bill.
The Australian Jillaroos lifted the trophy on the same stage and day as their male counterparts, but they were far from the only story. Canada and the Cook Islands joined the traditional powerhouses, creating the first truly global women’s competition.
The Papua New Guinea Orchids compiled their first women’s team to compete in that tournament. In the past, these women had trained on fields with holes in them and had garbage thrown at them when they had played matches before the men’s team.
In a country with such high rates of gender-based violence, these women changed the narrative with their participation in the World Cup and started changing perceptions about what women could look like. Women could be strong, powerful and play one of the most physically demanding sports on the planet, as captured by the multi-award-winning documentary, Power Meri.
That tournament coincided with the birth of the NRL Women’s Premiership. It started small with just four teams, with the focus being on building a sustainable, exciting and quality competition.
The circle from the Metropolitan Blues and Sydney Reds to the Sydney Roosters and St George Illawarra Dragons was complete, with audiences to boot: the Brisbane Broncos won the inaugural NRLW Premiership by defeating the Roosters in front of a Grand Final day crowd at Stadium Australia.
Now, the competition has expanded to six clubs and full pathways have been developed for female players. The likes of Emily Curtain and Teagan Berry are making the successful transition from the junior level Tarsha Gale Cup to the NSW Women’s Premiership and on to the NRLW.
The thread of the past continues to be woven through the women’s game today. In Australia, pioneers of the women’s game are beginning to be recognised and honoured; even if that recognition did not come when they were representing their state or country.
Junior competitions are named for Jillaroos legends Tarsha Gale and Lisa Fiola, while at the end of each year, the Veronica White Medal is presented to the female player who has demonstrated a commitment to making a difference in their community whilst playing rugby league at an elite level. Appropriately, the winner of the player of the match in Women’s State of Origin receives the Nellie Doherty Medal.
The growth of female stars has led to women like Jo Barrett, Ruan Sims and Allana Ferguson gaining prominence in the media, fronting NRL and NRLW coverage, with a similar role played by Jodie Cunningham and Andrea Dobson in the UK.
2021 has unfortunately brought some uncertainty to the women’s game, particularly here in Australia with the Rugby League World Cup was delayed by a year and the NRLW has also postponed until early 2022.
But that doesn’t mean we can’t look forward with a sense of optimism. 2022 will be the biggest year the women’s game has had to date, with two NRLW competitions, an All-Stars fixture, and State of Origin match in Australia, as well as a chance to build on the biggest Women’s Super league ever in the UK, all culminating in the World Cup.
Given how much footy is expected to be played, that there is an opportunity for the game to come together and discuss what the future looks like when it comes to pay, workload and the continual push to help players become full-time professionals.
International Rugby League has now created a Women’s and Girls Advisory Group, chaired by Julia Lee, who herself was the first woman to referee a men’s professional game.
“When we think of Women’s Rugby League today, we’re more likely to think of Jess Sergis, Ali Brigginshaw, Jodie Cunningham or Amy Hardcastle than we are of Nellie Doherty, Eulalie Stagpoole or Maggie Moloney,” said Lee.
“But what they started that Saturday in Sydney in 1921 has now gone around the globe and back again, adding new teams along the way.”
“In next year’s World Cup, Brazil will add another continent to the mix, joining Canada, France, Cook Islands, Papua New Guinea, Australia, New Zealand and hosts England in the biggest Women’s rugby league tournament ever played.”
“Imagine where we could be a century from today.”
Mike Meehall Wood @MikeMeehallWood is a Sydney-based journalist covering rugby league for Forbes and other publications. His two rugby league loves are Rochdale Hornets and Hull FC.
Mary Konstantopolous @LadiesWhoLeague is one of the foremost authorities on women's rugby league and founded the Ladies Who League network. She is a long-suffering Parramatta Eels fan.