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The Shining Lights of Australian Sport

Cronulla Sharks NRLW players Tayla Preston and Olivia Quinn have been told their passion was never a viable option for success, so they decided to change the narrative

In an offseason that has been engulfed in off-field scandals and drama, the National Rugby League has been met with one of its toughest challenges in restoring a clean image for one of Australia’s favourite games. However, in the midst of darkness there is an opportunity for light to shine through, and that light has taken shape in the form of the NRL Women’s competition.

Women’s Rugby League has undergone a complete makeover in the last 12 months, with the NRL hosting the inaugural women’s State of Origin, and the NRLW Premiership during the 2018 season. Increased TV coverage, corporate sponsorship deals and the introduction of female hosts on rugby league networks has ensured that the rise towards sporting equality continues to soar.

In a first for a football code in Australia, the official season launch promotional ad for 2019 featured both male and female players in action, with Cronulla Sharks halfback Tayla Preston congratulating the efforts.

“It’s always amazing to have people on board and supporting you through the game and knowing that people are backing you all the way, I see it getting even bigger and better,” said Preston.

Preston’s story has seen her go from playing footy part time whilst working a job at McDonalds in order to make ends meet, to then be able to fully immerse herself in the world of rugby league, something that had been a lifelong ambition.

“I’m very thankful that as the game grows, I’ve been able to put everything into footy, whether it’s playing or helping other young girls get into the game through clinics,” said Preston, “I’m just very thankful that I can put everything into the game I love.”

As the game continues to get bigger with each passing year, these young athletes continue to strive to further the reach of the women’s game. Athletes such as Preston and fellow Cronulla Sharks player Olivia Quinn have tried to separate themselves from the dramas that are currently surrounding the men’s game, instead trying to maintain engagement with their actions on the pitch.

“Seeing the men’s, and what’s been happening in the media at the moment, I definitely think the women’s is more of a family friendly game and more suitable for everyone who watches,” said Cronulla centre Olivia Quinn.

“At the end of the day, our game is all about passion and equality, and I’m very lucky to be a part of it all.”

In order for attitudes to change at a grassroots level, Quinn believes that it is important to encourage both young boys and girls to try rugby league, and to normalise the idea of women playing the game.

“I started playing rugby league three years ago originally for the Cronulla Caringbah Sharks when one of my friends asked me to play, but I thought rugby league was a bit of a boy’s game, but I decided to give it a crack and it was the most fun game I had ever played” said Quinn.

The game has also exceeded all expectations off the field, with attendance rates and TV viewership numbers impressing the games executives.

The NRL has spent the last 5 months in damage control as a number of players face serious sexual assault charges. The Daily Telegraph Sports Editor at Large Phil ‘Buzz’ Rothfield believes the recent behaviours have been disappointing after a breakout season for women in the game.

“What became a season for celebrating women and their momentum in the game turned completely sour, we were talking about is the alleged appalling treatment of women when we should have been talking about the incredible athletes that emerged in the NRLW competition”, said Rothfield.

“It has damaged a lot of the positives that were able to develop in 2018.”

Parramatta Eels star halfback Jaeman Salmon believes that the women’s game is only getting bigger and better.

“I’m a big supporter of the women’s game I think it’s great to see them on TV going just as hard as the men do, it’s great for the game and the fans,” said Salmon.

“The women’s league is a part of the game now and it is important that we acknowledge it and the women playing it.”

While the Women’s NRL competition continues this new-found growth, other sports like women’s cricket has been able to continue its burst through into the mainstream sporting circle.

Former Cricket Australia representative and ICC Umpire of the Year Simon Taufel believes the standard of women’s cricket has undergone a complete revamp from when he first started umpiring women’s games in 2000.

“In reality the pace of the women’s game was not quite there yet, the shot selection, the ability to hit boundaries was not quite there yet, and I fast forward to 2019 and you look at the skills and power and support structures around women’s cricket and its massive.” Said Taufel.

“Even if you look at the last 3 or 4 years in particular around the WBBL concept and what the t20 format of the game has done to women’s cricket particularly by virtue of the format it brings the competition closer”

The cricket code has also seen a dramatic rise in viewership, sponsorship and crowd numbers, the WBBL competition grand final played in front of a sell-out crowd of 5,368.

A lot of that can be contributed to the emergence of household names in the sport such as Elysse Perry and Alyssa Healy, who are not only driving the game forward on the pitch, but also forging an image of being role models off the pitch.

“Role models are absolutely vital, they are super important. If you can’t see it, you can’t be it,” said Taufel.

“If they can see that the women cricketers are well supported, if they can see a career path there where there’s good programs, that it’s taken seriously, then what we can see there is a lot of girls engaging with the junior formats. My daughter is playing cricket, she loves it and its really been something that’s been a revelation.”

When questioned about the future of the women’s league in Australian Cricket, Simon Taufel remained extremely optimistic and excited.

“The women’s game is catching up and as that catches up and the game is able to afford to pay those participants more they should, and we should work towards equality on every element of the game, whether it be administration, whether it be playing or whether it be support.”

Women’s sport in Australia is expected to continue to excel at such a fast rate. The NRL season kicked off this weekend, with the women’s Tarsha Gale Cup and Harvey Normans Premiership already underway for 2019.

The NRL will host the second official season of the NRLW this year, kicking off in September. The game will also continue to host State of Origin and international test matches throughout the regular season.