Women’s sport is in the spotlight, with Aussie teams smashing records and shining on the world stage, but in the Illawarra young aspiring female athletes pursuing one of our country’s most popular games will be pushed into the shadows during their biggest match of the year.
The local rugby league competition is preparing for a massive end to the season with many grand final games to be showcased at WIN Stadium, but none of the women’s matches have made the cut to be played at the popular venue.
Both women’s open and under 18 girls tackle grand finals were played at Ziems Park in Corrimal last weekend, while the men’s Illawarra Cup, first division, second division and under 18 boys are scheduled for WIN this Saturday.
The under 16 girls thought they would break the trend.
But co-captain of the Corrimal Cougars side Skye Spencer said their hopes were quickly shut down the day after they progressed into the final, which will be against Kiama Junior Knights.
“They gave us the false hope that, ‘We’re 99 per cent sure you’re going to play at WIN Stadium’ – after we pleaded with emails they said we were going to play there,” Skye said. “And then they just turned around and said, no, sorry, we’re going to just chuck you on a Friday night.”
Her teammate Matilda Powell said it put a dampener on an exciting time.
“I was at school when our coach sent us a message and I felt like crying because we’d been told that we might get the chance to play at WIN Stadium,” she said. “It was a bit of a letdown that we didn’t get to but we’re very grateful though that we’ve still made the grand final.”
Their game is scheduled for Friday night at Collegians, after the under 14s girls tackle grand final and under 14 boys preliminary final.
Sports journalist, Sportette founder and advocate Sam Squiers was outraged by the decision.
“This is frankly disgusting and needs to be called out,” she told Region. “Equality in sport means equal access to facilities, grounds and appropriate playing times.”
Sam said it was unfair for the girls not to be given the same opportunity as the boys for their grand final.
“We wonder why girls drop out of sport in their teens; we make it difficult for them while they’re in the sport with unequal access to facilities and playing times,” she said. “You may have been able to get away with it in the past but it’s 2023 and the girls deserved better.”
Not only will it be the first night game the girls play this season, but the time and location limits the opportunity for spectators, unlike a whole day event at WIN.
“No-one really comes to our games because they put us at inconvenient times to fit in with the boys, so being in a stadium like that people would come and watch us, support us and we could get selectors and that to come and see us play,” Skye said.
Matilda, who has been playing the sport for seven years, said seeing more girls play could show younger kids that playing footy was an option and inspire them to get involved.
“I started playing when I was nine and I was the only girl in the team for three years and it was hard,” she said. “Only when I got to high school is when other girls started coming in the team because they saw that I was playing and they thought it would be more comfortable with another girl in the team.”
One concerned parent who wished to remain unnamed said it wasn’t the game itself but the safety of the players that was at risk.
“The girls have not played a night game of tackle rugby this season or any of the previous two seasons,” he said. “So how can it be appropriate to schedule the biggest game of their season at night after a day at school and only a five-day recovery for the two teams?
“Obviously player welfare has not been considered to any great extent by the people in power at the Illawarra or Group 7.”
Skye and Matilda explained their previous game had been tough, with many players “putting their body on the line” for “amazing tackles”.
And the short turnaround could have bigger consequences than performance issues for the team.
“We both have knee injuries at the moment and a lot of people on our team have little niggles and injuries so a five-day turnaround is not ideal to prepare ourselves for another hard game,” Skye said. “A bit more time would’ve been nice to prepare ourselves and we need the conditioning to pull down and build back up again.”
Responding to why the decision was made to host only the men’s games at WIN Stadium, Illawarra Rugby League put the responsibility on New South Wales Rugby League (NSWRL). A NSWRL spokesperson said the organisation was “committed to rugby league in the Illawarra region but scheduling is subject to the availability of grounds and match officials”.
They did not clarify how far in advance WIN Stadium had been booked or if there was a reason it was unsuitable for the women’s matches.
An anonymous source said they posed a question about the venue to the local association three years ago and were told at the time: “It has been tradition for 25 years to have the boys U13s to U16s play at WIN Stadium and it can’t just change overnight.”
The NSWRL said it supported women’s rugby league, “which is reflected in the record participation numbers for 2023. There were 26,187 registered participants which is an increase of more than 14 per cent on last season”.
And said, “The NSWRL always welcomes feedback from all stakeholders to be discussed in the appropriate forum at the end of the season.”
Corrimal Cougars and Kiama Junior Knights will battle it out for the U16 girls tackle premiership on Friday 1 September at 7:30 pm at Collegians Sport Stadium.
Wests Devils will take on the Stingrays in the U14s girls tackle grand final at 6:30 pm.