Australia’s National Rugby League will make history with its first female referee on Thursday night, as the NRL struggles to leave behind its “blokey” culture.
Belinda Sharpe will be in charge for the clash between the Brisbane Broncos and Canterbury Bulldogs in Brisbane on Thursday.
The appointment is momentous not just for Sharpe, a former newspaper sub-editor, but also for the scandal-plagued NRL.
“It’s a historic occasion,” head of football Graham Annesley told reporters in Sydney.
“It’s the first time it’s happened in the 110-year history of the game but it’s the first of many that will follow over the next 100 years and the 100 years after that.”
Officials have been working hard to shed the NRL’s scandal-tainted image, but that task has proved difficult amid allegations of sexual assault and violence against women levelled against several high-profile players.
There have been reports of disgusted female fans abandoning the game in response to a perceived lack of respect for women among male players.
But it also comes as women enjoy a rapid rise to sporting prominence in other previously male-dominated codes such as Aussies Rules’ football’s AFL.
Women have a profesional league in Aussie Rules, a game similar to Ireland’s Gaelic football, which has proved hugely popular with spectators since its introduction in 2017.
Last year, the NRL launched its elite women’s tournament with four teams and games held alongside the men’s premiership rounds.
“There are a number of female referees right across the country now, particularly at the grassroots level, which is fantastic to see,” Sharpe said.
“The opportunities are there for females and for any referee to make it to this level, so if my opportunity to get my debut shows other women it’s possible, then that’s a good thing.”
Sharpe has been a part-time touch judge in the NRL since 2014.
Her rise to the top has been rapid, having been appointed to the full-time squad less than three months ago and the NRL stressed that her selection to referee a primetime game was based on merit.