THE GROWTH OF WOMEN'S RUGBY LEAGUE IS SUPPORTING AND FUELLING THE SPORT AROUND THE WORLD
The decision taken by Queensland Rugby League to pay the women players in the State of Origin the same as the men has, once again highlighted the rapid journey that women’s rugby league is on.
Rugby League World Cup 2021 has led the way by ensuring that participation fees for the men’s women’s and wheelchair competitions are all equal as well as ensuring that all other tournament arrangements such as travel and accommodation, are the same.
Women’s rugby league is on a rapid rise and, as such is presenting opportunities for the sport around the globe. In Brazil, a nation better known for football excellence rather than the oval ball, the national women’s rugby league is preparing to feature in the World Cup. They set out their stall from the start to ensure that men and women had equal opportunities and based upon that, the women had a clearer run at achieving a place in the global tournament. That participation has, in turn driven interest in rugby league for men, women and wheelchair growth. It carries over to match officials too, where Brazil report 60% of their referees are women and ambition to match that figure for coaches.
Chief Operating Officer at Brazil Rugby League, Hugo Froes commented, “We believe that having women in important roles will naturally make others feel comfortable and encouraged to participate, on and off the field.
We have surpassed the number of participants that we were seeking, and we continue to grow, we even have the only women’s professional club playing in our competition. Melina is professional for the women players and remains amateur for the men, which is an interesting twist.
“In a budgetary sense, we currently allocate more money to our women's program than our men's program, the women's competition covers a geographically larger footprint than our men's competition, and our sponsorships for women exceed our male sponsorships.”
The development of rugby league in Canada is following a similar pathway. Canada Ravens competed strong in the 2017 Rugby League World Cup and were planning a strong programme to improve further at RLWC2021 – until the pandemic put everything on hold. Canada Rugby League President Bob Jowett recognises the challenges and the opportunity saying, “To start with, in Canada we already have parity of payment – no-one gets paid! However, what we have seen is that the success of the Ravens and the opportunity to play in world cups is driving a great deal of our activity, particularly in Ontario.
“We will have to wait and see the final impact of the Raven’s participation in RLWC2021 but there is an appetite to watch the game in Canada on TV so the impact will be much greater if we are able to secure a broadcast arrangement in Canada. We also don’t really know yet any potential downside to the postponement and if that will clash with players competing in other codes.”
The growth of women’s rugby league is global and in the Middle East Africa (MEA) region there are several success stories. Amongst those is Cameroon, a nation making its way into the sport. Cameroon currently has seven teams preparing for the 2022 championship and with one eye on a qualification campaign for Rugby League World Cup 2025.
As a strategic decision, the Cameroon Rugby League has actively pursued the growth of the women’s game at the same rate as the men’s game. In that way they are doubling their chances of success and reducing the reliance for success on one, over-crowded sporting market. In employing this attitude towards equity, Cameroon Rugby League sees itself as a continental leader and wants to share its strategy with its neighbours.
Ngatchien Geradine is captain Cameroon RL women’s national team, and she explains how she has personally benefitted and how her experience can be the same for women across Africa and wider. “Rugby league has been many things for me and especially being a serious getaway. It’s allowed me to become a person whom I didn’t know I wanted to be and has made me a much better human being.
“I’ve grown a lot since starting this game three years ago and, thanks to my coaches, I can now call myself a true rugby league player rather than just a little girl that would otherwise be working at the market. My coach has made me understand what it is to be a student athlete and that the STUDENT comes first.
“Rugby League has given me this opportunity to dream bigger than I had ever imagined.”
Clearly each organisation must make its own choices and priorities to best achieve their outcomes, however, it does seem clear that, increasingly, a focus on the women’s game can have a positive effect on all aspects of the sport and will be a model followed by more nations in the future.
After a period of forced inactivity around the world, all of these stories are music to the ears of Julia Lee, Chair of International Rugby League’s Women and Girls Advisory Group (WGAG), “Over the past two years International Rugby League (IRL) has made significant progress in developing a solid platform for the women and girls’ game to grow and thrive internationally.
“The formation of the Women and Girls Advisory Working Group in 2019 has seen the development of a strategic plan which focusses on seven pillars activity. The pillars of activity are domestic competition, playing, coaching, officiating, profile, leadership, and international opportunities. These have all been centrally developed to ensure that as the women and girls game grows it is the women are central to that growth. In 2022 through the leadership and profile pillars the intention is that women will begin to be recognised and play a bigger part in the governance of the sport at all levels.
IRL have recognised that when we are looking at achieving parity for the women and girls’ game, it is essential that women are in senior decision-making roles in all areas of the sport”
The QRL example has now set the challenge to their biggest rivals, New South Wales, who will now have to decide if they are able to match the Queensland commitment. QRL Chief Executive Officer, Rohan Sawyer recognises the magnitude of their decision saying,
This is about creating certainty and stability for aspiring Maroons to have the opportunity to come through a genuine career pathway within the female game.
“We have identified the commitment the players make to the Maroons by being part of the top squad through to June, and over this time we want to adequately remunerate them for their commitment.
“We’re really proud of the fact that we’ve made the decision to invest now. I’ve got no doubt that there are many people and organisations within the game and other sectors who have the intentions to continue to invest in women’s rugby league, but we are intent on making decisions that accelerate this.”