A look at UQ Rugby League’s ground-breaking women’s team ahead of their first home match of the Queensland Women’s Rugby League season.
‘The Weeknd’ blares from a giant speaker sitting on the edge of a floodlit field, ordinarily where the corner post would stand.
“I can’t feel my face when I’m with you,
But I love it, but I love it, oh!”
Kind of poetic lyrics when you consider these women play a bone-jarring, edge-of-your-seat sport.
It’s the final training session before UQ Rugby League Club’s newly formed women’s team host its first home game of the SEQ Senior Women season against Inala.
Coach Marcel Noronha kneels next to a whiteboard leaning gently against an upright.
His pupils sit quietly.
Tiny magnets are scattered across a field drawn in black texta; ‘red’ and ‘lemon’ sets are explained, with audience participation encouraged.
For many women of this inaugural team, the information being presented is completely foreign.
But there’s some things that don’t need teaching: passion, excitement and enthusiasm for the game they call ‘the greatest of all’.
“It all started at last year’s UQ Market Day, when we had girls coming up to us wanting to play rugby league,” explains Noronha, who also serves as club President.
“Initially, we had about six girls on our group email list. I then went around to girls I knew who played other sports to see if they were keen to give it a go.
“Fast forward to our first training session this year and we had 11 women turn up – I thought to myself this might work.”
Forming a second team has been a huge undertaking for the UQ Hounds.
For starters, the club has doubled in size with the women’s side joining a single men’s outfit, which competes in the Universities Rugby League Queensland competition.
Then there’s been the added challenge of teaching a brand new squad, consisting of mostly newcomers, the intricacies of the 13-person code.
“Right now we have about 30 women registered, and of that group, there’s about five that have actually played rugby league before!” Noronha says.
“All the girls are super keen, and they want to learn. They want to be a part of what we’re doing here.
“The thing that’s surprised me the most is their commitment. When training is on there’s numbers. When they’re at the games, they’re trying their best. They just keep turning up.”
Keita Middleberg-Steel, a life-long fan of the sport, is one of the club’s many first-timers.
“I wanted to try something new, and I’d never done anything like it before,” says Middleberg-Steel, who plays prop for UQ.
“It was pretty intimidating at first because I’d never played before, or even had a go at touch footy.
“But Marcel just urged me to come down and give it a go, make a few tackles and see how it feels. It’s just a lot of fun!”
Upon entering the 15-team SEQ Senior Women’s Competition, UQ played in three grading matches before finding its place in the league’s four-team C-Grade conference.
After back-to-back defeats to begin the season, UQ broke through for its maiden victory with a 24-12 triumph over Jimboomba in round 3 of the competition.
“Our first win was insane! It felt incredible,” says Laura Sapsford.
“I’ve won footy games before but to win it as a group with these girls, who the majority had never played before, was huge!”
For Sapsford, the historic victory was extra special.
The utility player, who studied a Bachelor of Biomedical Science and a Master’s in Public Health (Nutrition) at UQ, jumped at the chance to return to the University after missing the opportunity to play during her studies.
“When I studied here, UQ only had a women’s rugby union team, and union’s not a sport I really knew how to play.
“I played netball for UQ but it wasn’t the same as league. League is really about the whole team – everyone has a job and when you win it feels incredible.
“We’d love to show all women that league isn’t just for men. The sport is absolutely for everyone,” she says.
A game for all – it’s a common statement you hear in many rugby league circles.
Former Brisbane Broncos forward and UQ physiotherapy graduate, Nick Kenny, is another who expects the numbers of female players to grow.
“It’s encouraging to see local clubs, particularly UQ, take the initiative to promote and organise a competition for females, and if more local clubs continue to do this, senior women’s rugby league will gain momentum,” says Kenny, who runs his Active Performance Physiotherapy business in the Northern Territory.
“I think it’s most important that governing bodies strive to promote rugby league as a product that is a safe and healthy team sport for kids of both sexes.
“At the end of the day, loving parents will only support their daughters to play rugby league if they feel it’s good for them.”
Final year UQ pathology student, Tallisha Harden, has experienced the sport at both ends of the spectrum – from grassroots matches to internationals.
Harden, who represents Burleigh in the SEQ competition, as well as the Australian Jillaroos and Indigenous All Stars teams, says the sport is welcoming of all women, regardless of their size or skill level.
“I think especially around the contact area, a lot of girls can get intimidated that it’s too full-on, but the QRL (Queensland Rugby League) do what they can to make it quite safe,” Harden tells UQ Sport.
“Referees are given a lot of education around pulling up tackles and things like that. Momentum is slowed if anyone is in a dangerous position, things like that.
“It’s a really inclusive game, and there’s always a position and a place for everyone in the team.
“If anyone is thinking of playing the sport, my advice is to come down and give it a go – the more girls who play, the better!” she says.
For UQ, the focus of their maiden season isn’t about winning. Instead, both players and officials are setting simple targets.
“They improve each and every week,” says Hounds coach Noronha.
“Now is not when we’re going to produce our best performances. That will come later in the season.
“Right now, it’s just about learning the basics and fundamentals of the game, and actually just playing the sport.
“It’s about giving them simple targets each week and achieving those targets.”
“Even though we were getting absolutely annihilated in the first couple of games it was really cool to see us improve each week,” adds Middleberg-Steel, who played in UQ’s very first game against Flagstone.
“You’d see one person do a really good run that they didn’t do the week prior and that would make you want to take a run.
“There’s so much self-belief in this team.”