The NRL Is Finally Dragging Itself Out Of The Stone Age


League is often an easy target for generalisations and low-blows and it sure doesn’t help its own cause when it makes headlines at the front of the paper rather than the back. With a staggering 66 allegations of bad behaviour in the past four years, including a horror off-season in 2018/19, many punters and critics tar the sport, and its people, with the same brush.

READ MORE: Why Would Anyone Let Their Kid Play Rugby League With The Lack Of Role Models?

So, let's give credit where credit is due. It’s back slaps and high fives all round this week with Belinda Sharpe to become the NRL’s first female referee on Thursday night when she takes the field -- in primetime mind you! -- for the big clash between Canterbury and Brisbane at Suncorp Stadium.

And after 111 years of competition, it’s about time!

But this is more than a great appointment or good look for the game. This is another example of the NRL and traditional male sports catching up with the modern day. And we want to see more of it. We need to.

READ MORE: NRL Appoints First Female Referee

Sharpe became an NRL Touch judge back in 2014 and officiated in that capacity three years later at the World Cup. She worked Queensland Cup matches in 2015 and refereed a Brisbane Broncos trial game earlier this year.

She’s done the hard yards and in May was upgraded to a full-time referee contract.

The Queenslander got the nod because she's good at what she does, earned selection and that full-time environment has fine-tuned her skills even further. There is no doubt that she is as competent and up to the grade as her male peers.

It's about time! (Image: Getty)

And while women’s competitions in both League and AFL have, and will long continue, to inspire a whole new generation of footballers, Sharpe and her pathway is a magnificent tale for budding officials. Referees and umpires, in any sport, are bloody hard to come by. Participation numbers can always do with a boost and let’s be honest, it’s more often than not a thankless job.

READ MORE: At Last, 11 Reasons To Be Positive About A Deeply Tainted Game

Crossing codes, the AFL debuted its first female field umpire, Eleni Glouftsis, in 2016 while goal umpire Chelsea Roffey has been officiating for the last 15 years and reached the pinnacle of her discipline in 2012 when she umpired the Grand Final between Sydney and Hawthorn.

It would be dim to suggest the presence of more females throughout the game improves an image or deters ugly off-field behaviour, but it’s a prime example of the sport being dragged into the now. Plus, you can’t be what you can’t see.

READ MORE: Don't Blame Women, Blame The Lack Of Role Models In The Game

Little girls now have a clear pathway to the top when they see Sharpe doing her job on primetime national television. That’s pretty powerful.

The sky's the limit for young girls who played footy until there was no longer a team for them to do so. The dreams of these budding players can now come true. There is a place for them, they are embraced and they are valued here.

Turn on the TV or radio, open a newspaper or scroll through social media and brilliant women are hosting, reporting and analysing the game. Debbie Spillane, Erin Molan, Von Sampson, Mary Konstantopoulos and many others are trailblazers, and so are the women who work in club land, sit on boards and represent governing bodies.

READ MORE: What Women Have To Tackle For A Career In Sport

Down here in Melbourne, I’ve been at times quick to judge the NRL, but was rapt to hear of Sharpe’s appointment this week and will be tuning in on Thursday night.

This is more than just a first.