With the Australian Women’s Rugby Seven’s success at the Olympics this year, and the inaugural women’s AFL competition beginning in 2017, interest in women’s contact sports is at an all time high in Australia.
But what of Rugby League, Australia’s other major contact football sport?
It’s commonly known in Queensland and New South Wales, but not in Western Australia, that Rugby League started in Australia in 1908 when high profile players in the then-amateur game of Rugby Union, such as Dally Messenger, were lured to play League which was and remains professional. For decades, before Rugby Union turned professional in the 1990s, players who switched to League were banned from the amateur sport.
League is the dominant sport in Queensland and New South Wales, and it is now common for League players to play Union.
League is similar to Union in that it is played on a rectangular field, involves bone-crunching tackles, and the methods of scoring are grounding the ball behind the opposition’s try line, and kicking set-piece or field goals.
While women’s Rugby Union has experienced rapid growth in the last few years in Western Australia, there has not been a women’s League competition for well over a decade.
In 2015 the Affiliated States Rugby League Competition introduced a full contact women’s tournament, and at that time, WA had zero registered players.
WA put in a team anyway.
“I knew the interest was there,” says Western Australian Rugby League Development Officer Edward Easter.
“So I nominated a WA team and crossed my fingers we would get a squad together.”
WA took out the 2015 competition, beating Victoria 34-4 in the final.
The sandgropers also took out the competion in June this year, making them back-to-back champions.
WA state representative Mahinarangi Rungarunga (pictured) had moved to Perth in 2014 and jumped at the chance to trial for the state team.
“It was pretty sad coming to Perth and finding that there was no League comp here, so if trialing for state meant I could play I’d trial,” she said.
“It was interesting getting the team together …,” she said.
“There were a few girls who had played League back in New Zealand [arguably the world capital of Rugby Union] but mostly they were from other backgrounds.
“There were a lot of girls from Rugby Union and a few from AFL, Touch Rugby, Oztag and even some from netball.”
Mr Easter said spectators were often surprised that women Rugby League players were just as physical as the blokes.
“One thing I have noticed working with the state ladies’ team is the speed at which a novice player picks up the core skills of our game,” he said.
“Novice males find this much harder and often never shake off bad habits they may have picked up in other football codes.”
When asked if she was concerned about the big hits in League Ms Rungarunga laughed.
“I’ve played league since I was five years old,” she said.
“The only injury I’ve ever had is a dislocated shoulder.”
Last month Western Australia Rugby League kicked off a mini series of women’s League with teams from South Perth, Rockingham, Ellenbrook and Joondalup.
Mr Easter said the games had been “excellent”.
Chairperson of the WARL Women’s Rugby League Steering Committee, Tiaria Wickliffe, says there is enough interest in WA to hold a proper women’s competition.
“After every game we have held in the last 12 months all players have said how much they have loved playing women’s rugby league.” she said.
“We have some very skilled players, and supportive, knowledgeable and experienced coaches.”
The mini series will continue in October.