The changing face of Rugby League

Hatch’s Andre Cupido speaks to three women inspiring rugby league fans to follow their dreams. 

Women’s rugby league has evolved rapidly in recent years – forging an identity of its own. New state-based competitions are being introduced, while extended pathways have been established for aspiring rugby league players across Australia.

Following the resounding success of the World Cup in 2017; Antoinette Watts, Bianca Zietsman and Alison Watters agreed to sit down with Hatch to discuss their incredible experience in the groundbreaking tournament.

Their respective journeys are vastly different, but they each share a core message of self-belief, persistence and confidence, which sets the perfect example for young female athletes looking to pursue a sporting career.

These are their stories.

Antoinette Watts

Self-confidence is a value in the hearts of sporting athletes across the world.

For Antoinette Watts, it’s a mountain of self-belief that has been pivotal in her professional development as a rugby league referee.

Antoinette first discovered her passion for refereeing six years ago. Being a big supporter of the New Zealand Warriors for many years. she quickly noticed the work of referees and instantly felt drawn to the idea of giving it a go.

She managed to get in contact with someone at the Auckland Rugby Referees Association and her career quickly thrived.

“They said alright come along to an Under 10’s tournament in a West Auckland Suburb, bring a whistle and bring your boots,” she said.

“In my first game, I still got them to somehow respect me and I think I did a good job because I was able to manage the people and the kids; I was able to have empathy on the field, so that helped.”

While that was Antoinette’s induction into refereeing, her progression into the academy didn’t come without some obstacles.

In her first season, she lost 15kg to increase her match fitness to help officiate to the required standard and her success saw her progress from officiating Under 13’s to Under 15’s in her third season.

Although enjoying a successful year and building a strong reputation as a leading female referee, which saw her officiate the Under 15’s final in a local tournament, it ended in an ugly brawl at the full-time siren which had a negative affect on Antoinette.

What transpired is what she defines as: “a horrible display of all things what we don’t love about rugby league” and raised considerable doubts as to whether or not she could referee at a grassroots level.

“It was started by some coaches and some trainers on the sideline, they were just egging each other and in the end it went to the judiciary,” she said.

“For me, that felt like a bit of a backwards step because I just started to question myself a little bit. I went off that game thinking what did I do? What could I have done? Was it something that I missed?

“I had to be ushered off by some security and there were comments thrown at me like ‘it’s because you’re reffing, they shouldn’t have a female out in the middle’, and I thought what if it’s true?

“But I’m quite resilient and I learn to own what’s mine, and there was nothing that I could have done to prevent it, because it was just a tap on the head and it started from there.”

Bianca, Antoinette and Alison on the first day of the 2017 Women’s World Cup. (Photo: Supplied by Bianca Zietsman)

Although she initially doubted her own ability following the incident, Antoinette proved she was more than capable of officiating at higher levels and quickly built a strong foundation of self-confidence that helped her on her journey.

“It definitely gave me confidence and I don’t think I was the most self-confident person growing up,” she said.

“I didn’t have too much belief in what I could do until I got out there and realised I could manage 26 boys and 26 grown women.

“I was earning some respect and that had a big part to do with it.”

After years of refereeing men’s and women’s rugby league in Auckland, Antoinette knew she had what it took to officiate at the women’s Rugby League World Cup.

She officiated the Kiwi Ferns’ trial matches in the lead-up to the tournament, and while there was an air of uncertainty surrounding who would be selected, she had faith in her ability to earn the chance to officiate.

“I was excited and I was quite determined to be selected and I just kind of knew I was going to be, without being too cocky, I just knew inside I had what it took to fit that criteria,” she said.

“It felt surreal when I got there.

“I think for a year of my life I solely concentrated on that confidence thing – reading the rulebooks, putting myself through quizzes, doing drills in the backyard and I think that was the one thing that got me through and it gave me massive confidence.”

Having shown significant resilience in her path to the World Cup, Antoinette hopes her journey can set a prime example for other aspiring female referees.

“When I’ve shined the most in my life, on and off the field, it’s the moments where I haven’t questioned myself… but we have a lot of people outside of our lives telling us we can’t do it or saying it behind our backs,” she said.

“But why be one of those people? It’s [about having] the self-belief and every time I’ve backed myself, I’ve had a great game or a great day.”

Bianca Zietsman 

When I spoke to Bianca Zietsman last year I asked if there is a particular message that motivates her throughout her sporting endeavours.

As she paused briefly to think of an answer, she swiftly looked down at her bracelet before taking it off to show me.

The engraved quote typifies the persistence she displays within and away from the sporting world.

[blockquote style=”2″]”She believed she could, and so she did.”[/blockquote]

While it’s a simple message of perseverance and self-belief, it’s also a powerful phrase with great significance in her journey.

Growing up in Johannesburg, South Africa, Bianca lived a far from lavish life with her family struggling for financial security throughout her childhood.

Building a strong passion for sport at a very young age, Bianca would go to significant lengths to stay involved in any way possible. So much so, she would referee touch football games and use the money to contribute to the travel expenses her parents could barely afford.

“I did it because I come from a very poor family in South Africa and I didn’t play sport unless my parents took me there,” she said.

“They couldn’t afford the petrol to get me there, so I would referee four times a night and play another game so I could pay for my folk’s petrol money to get me to touch.”

Although using refereeing as a way to help her parents, Bianca found it was just another opportunity to be involved in the bigger picture.

She started as a referee in local Under 12’s touch football competitions and while she thoroughly embraced it as a hobby, Bianca never defined refereeing as a passion.

“I don’t think refereeing is a passion of mine specifically, but I see it as an outlet for [me to play] sport and [be involved in the] bigger picture,” she said.

Bianca officiating in the Cook Islands clash vs. England in the 2017 World Cup. (Photo: Supplied by Bianca Zietsman)

“I enjoy it and I love the buzz afterwards, but I never wanted to be the best referee in the world. It was more just about how I can stay in sport.”

Bianca grew up as a confident and outgoing teenager who would always be willing to try new things, but her transition into professional refereeing was far from seamless.

At 14 she had the chance to pursue a career in swimming after earning selection as a provincial swimmer for South Africa, but she chose to take a different path.

“I had to make a decision on whether I wanted to continue with swimming or go down the touch route, and I chose touch,” she said.

“It was mainly because it was more of a team sport and not an individual sport.

“My parents didn’t have the funding to take up swimming coaches, so I thought I can facilitate myself by refereeing and then playing to raise sponsorship to go to tournaments.”

For Bianca, sport meant more to her than just running around an oval with friends – she describes it as an escape and somewhere she can truly be herself.

“I think a big part of [my involvement in sport] is because growing up, it was almost my escape – somewhere I can be me,” she said.

“Just to get away from family drama, and it was just that escape [where] I could just go and just do it.

“And there were a lot of people that were telling me I couldn’t do things and although I don’t go out to prove them [wrong], I just know that’s in their minds and not in mine.

“I know I can deal with all the problems and the politics around it, which is hard. It can break you but I come back for a reason and that’s why I love doing it.”

Bianca describes herself as an opportunist and after refereeing for 18 years in varying capacities in touch football, rugby union and rugby league, the opportunity to be involved in an international rugby league tournament was too good to refuse.

But despite being offered the once in a lifetime opportunity to referee at the Women’s Rugby League World Cup, Bianca initially had to fund her own way to Australia from the UK.

Bianca and Alison before officiating for the first-time at the 2017 World Cup. (Photo: Supplied by Bianca Zietsman)

“They said to me they don’t have enough funding to send me to Australia,” she said.

“So I just immediately thought that I’ll sort sponsorship out.

“I spoke to some friends and a couple of companies. It took me just two days to sort out and then all I needed was them to put me forward.

While she had very little experience as a rugby league referee prior to the event, her involvement at the International Women’s Seven’s tournament assisted in her performance on the field.

Her self-confessed “happy-go-lucky” attitude helped her build a strong rapport with the players in the games she officiated, to the point that players themselves would assist her in getting their team-mates onside.

Having been a core part of an historic tournament that showcased the exponential growth of women’s rugby league, Bianca hopes her experience can send a strong message of support for other aspiring female athletes.

She hopes the rapid growth of female participation in rugby league can culminate in a female-dominated tournament at the next World Cup.

“I want to referee more games, I want to inspire other women and I want that whole World Cup to be female,” she said.

“Four years is enough time to have female referees get to the standard [they need to] so that would be my vision, but whether they allow me to do it or not I’m not sure.

“It’s not about needing more females, it’s about equality and growing that side of things.”

Alison Watters

Alison Watters has enjoyed a stellar 20-year career as a touch football referee, and her natural officiating ability earned her selection for the World Cup despite being a rugby league referee for less than a year.

While adapting was tough, Alison believes it was all part of the experience – which made it so much more rewarding.

“It was challenging at the start but I think my experience in touch helped me because the game is a bit similar because it’s back and forth,” she said.

“That made it more enjoyable because I can talk to the players like I do in touch and it made it slightly easier at the start.”

Alison grew an immediate passion for refereeing at a very young age and admits that her personality suited the authoritarian style of officiating.

Her friendly and approachable nature helped her establish early success when she refereed older age groups at just 12-years-old.

Alison Watters is the leading female touch football referee in WA. (Photo: Supplied by Alison Watters).

“I played in my mum’s touch football team and I wanted to referee more than I wanted to play,” she said.

“Maybe because I was just a bossy person when I was young.”

Alison says she is a firm believer that everything happens for a reason, so when she missed out on an opportunity to referee touch football, she signed up to become a rugby league referee, which eventually opened the door for her to officiate on an international stage.

She was selected to officiate at the Women’s Rugby League World Cup at the end of 2017 and can now boast an incredible refereeing resume.

She says the chance to showcase her skills at the pinnacle of female sport in Australia, was the defining factor.

“I’m so glad I went to [rugby] league because it gave me another platform and another game that I can really enjoy,” she said.

“I always love reffing touch football, but the chance to do something different on such a big stage was amazing.

“When I look back. I wish I was there more but I’m glad I could relish it all.” – Andre Cupido

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