Corban McGregor has been a rugby league fanatic since childhood, watching her idols compete for the ultimate prize of the premiership.

But growing up, she only had men to look up to.

Key points:

  • Women’s rugby league has had a boost in participation, with player numbers growing by 150 per cent in the past five years
  • Junior rugby league players say the growth of female-only teams has made the game more accessible
  • The NRLW was looking for a longer season in 2020, but the COVID-19 pandemic means it will follow the 2018 and 2019 schedule

Today, the 26-year-old is the female role model for young girls that she never had.

“It’s really cool, I feel like I have to pinch myself every time people say that we’re role models or heroes,” the Jillaroos, NSW Blues and Roosters player said.

Taking time off from training ahead of the 2020 NRLW competition, McGregor met aspiring players from the Kellyville Bushrangers.

The number of women playing the game has grown by 150 per cent over the past five years.

Teenagers dream of NRLW future

Teenage players Charli Buhagiar and Hayley Bell, both 14, are part of the wave of girls joining the women’s game.

They want to be just like their hero McGregor and they were blown away meeting her.

“I really love it and I think it would be good to get involved [in the NRLW] and I want to make it,” Buhagiar said.

Hayley Bell (right) and Charli Buhagiar play for Kellyville Bushrangers and both dream of a career in the NRLW.(ABC News: Chloe Hart)

Bell has been playing since she was seven.

“I’ve been playing for seven years now and I enjoy going out and having a hit. It’s so fun and I’ve seen a lot more rugby league women’s sides since the NRLW competition started two years ago,” Bell said.

She believes female-only sides have made the game much more accessible to women.

McGregor beams with pride when talking about the possibilities for the next generation.

She has had to overcome a lot to get to where she is today, including having a son when she was just 16.

“When it started [getting women involved in the game] it had a main focus around players’ partners and families,” McGregor said.

“We should still acknowledge that, but it’s also grown into more female players, officials and females in senior leadership roles — it’s great to see.”

On top of being a mother, representing her country, her state and the Roosters and working, she is now doing an internship with the NRL in order to get involved in the game in another role after she finishes playing.

NRLW scaled back but still going ahead in 2020

Corban McGregor has played league at the highest level. She is already planning for a role in the game after her playing career.(ABC News: Chloe Hart)

She will play for the Roosters in the NRLW 2020 premiership season, which will run alongside the men’s finals series next month.

This year the competition was meant to expand to six rounds, but the format will be the same as that played in 2018 and 2019 because of the financial pressures caused by COVID-19.

Last year’s premiers Brisbane Broncos will play runners-up St George Illawarra, as well as the Sydney Roosters and New Zealand Warriors.

“I am really proud that we’ve had such strong growth rates all across the board,” she said.

“It’s amazing and I hope that continues to grow. There is still room for improvement.”

Continued growth key for women’s game

Harvey Norman CEO Katie Page founded the Women In League Round 14 years ago to give women a bigger voice in the game.

“Why aren’t we bringing the women through? Why aren’t they playing? Why aren’t they feeling like this? They’re as big as contributors to the sport as men,” she said.

Ms Page was the strong female lead the initiative needed.

Harvey Norman’s Katie Bell (second from left) founded the NRL’s Women in League round. She says building the women’s game will take time.(Supplied: NRL Media)

“Not everyone is going to be able to be an elite player but they can certainly play the game or can be involved,” Ms Page said.

She is pleased the NRL committed to investing in the women’s game amid huge budget cuts in response to coronavirus.

“For all sport, that’s their next challenge,” she said. “Because we’ve been through COVID, we’re still going through COVID, and a lot of things have had to be put on hold obviously.”

Ms Page sees this as an opportunity to make the game stronger.

“Take this moment to be doing your strategy for when the world returns hopefully next year and what does it look like,” she said.

She says the game must continue growing and those behind it cannot be complacent given the growth it has experienced.

“It’s about how we are evolving and doing better and growing — that’s the measure of growth,” she said. “Are we doing the right thing for this code? Are we representing community with this as well? Why are we here?”

One game of the women’s State of Origin will take place as a standalone event on Friday, November 13.


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