It’s not just a league of extraordinary gentlemen

Passionate: Manly captain Jamie Lyon with Layne Beachley. Photo: James AlcockStanding on a beach in France in 2003, I was asked by a group of male surfers to stand aside because the waves were ”too good to be wasted on the girls”. This didn’t shock me – I’d had this attitude thrown at me throughout my career and many women in all sporting codes have encountered the same sentiment.
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As a tragic Manly Sea Eagles fan, I’ve loved rugby league my whole life. Alongside surfing, it’s one of my biggest passions, and as we are in the midst of the seventh annual Harvey Norman Women in League round, it felt timely to speak to the thousands of young women who play the game and hope to represent their country.

There were times in surfing where I simply wanted to quit. It was too difficult, the divide between men and women in the sport too stark. In 1997, I sat down with my trainer Rob Rowland-Smith, who I count as one of my closest mentors, and waved the white flag. I wanted out. Rob asked me two things – how much are you investing in this, and how much do you want out of it? If these two elements weren’t equal, it was never going to work. Finally, he told me if I were to walk away, I would regret it for the rest of my life. I still carry Rob’s pep talk with me, and it’s his message I’d like to share with the women of rugby league.

The Jillaroos, Australia’s women’s rugby league team, are in for a massive year in 2013. They head to the UK in July for the World Cup in what will be their fourth international competition. I met three of the ladies in the squad earlier this week. One of them, Ruan Sims, has three brothers playing in the NRL – Ashton, Tariq and Korbin. Now this is a family born to play league. Ruan will play for Australia this year, something her brothers are yet to achieve. Her story is one of many emerging in women’s rugby league – they can play this game, they can be as successful as the Kangaroos.

For the first time this year, the Australian Women’s Rugby League will be integrated under the governance of the Australian Rugby League Commission and the changes are already being felt. The Jillaroos received funding from the ARLC for their World Cup campaign this year, and coming from someone who worked 60 hours a week to fund my place on the professional surfing tour, this is a huge support for the talented women.

With the Women in League round, we see NRL clubs across the nation turn pink with jerseys and socks and boots, all auctioned off for charity. Many cry this round is tokenistic; it’s all lip service and no action. But sitting on the panel of the annual Women in League lunch in Sydney earlier this week, I saw first-hand the groundswell of support the NRL has for women in the game, from players to the board room. I spoke with NRL CEO Dave Smith, who addressed a room of 200 women and outlined ambitious plans to ”add more women to boards and create more pathways for women in the game … see female CEOs and more female coaches and referees rising through the ranks”.

There is a healthy base of women’s engagement – female participation is at record levels, 41 per cent of fans are female and the number of women in senior executive and board positions has increased to 19 (almost double what it was two years ago with 10 in 2011). As women, we all stand on the shoulders of giants, on the shoulders of those women who paved the way for us to fulfil stronger and more senior positions among our male counterparts. I encourage today’s female players to use the platform the NRL is offering them and take it to the next level, not just for themselves but for the next generation of girls aspiring to make league their game. It’s great to have the support from the top levels of the game, in fact, as someone who has worked their way through a male dominated sport I believe it’s critical.

But if there’s one message I have for the women rising through the ranks it’s to keep that momentum going. Keep agitating for change and better sponsorship deals. It’s up to you to use this support and drive it forward. Prove to yourself and to the fans of league this wave is one you deserve to be on.

And as for those waves back in France in 2003, we stood our ground, won the fight and the boys were astonished by how well we surfed. Amazing what good waves can do for you.

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.

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