Women, Whippersnappers and the Future of Whistleblowers

NRL referee Belinda Sharpe (nee Sleeman)

It’s a thankless job, one that we are all very quick to criticise but very rarely hear praise for “great refereeing performances” A standard weekend is skin thickening.

To give you an idea, I’ll recall a weekend when I was refereeing in a prominent Junior District.

Friday Night – U/16’s – Local derby, decent crowd at a former first ragde venue. About 200 in the crowd, very vocal.

My girlfriend came to watch which was rare, and she could not believe the abuse I copped. I thought my game that night was decent.

Ruck control was good, I enjoyed blowing an early penalty to show my play the balls were important. As all local derbies are, this had feeling.

About 60 minutes in, I sent a player from the home team off for dangerous contact to head and neck, and the abuse came thick and fast.

My girlfriend was horrified at the abuse and spoke to the referees advisor at the ground that was watching my performance. He indicated that I had a good game and that he would hang around after the game just as a precaution.

No issues afterwards, but plenty of verbal leaving the ground.

Sunday U/18’s in the middle. I arrive at the game, there is a phone in the referees room with a direct line to the local police. “What is this place?”, I thought.

Former NRL referee Steve Clark

The crowd during the U/18’s was small but drinking and by the time A Grade begun (and I was a touchy for that), they were in fine fettle.

I was called every name under the sun, some very derogatory based on the pink shirt we wore, some clever and partially funny, some that were downright personal, and against someone who they have never met.

It’s not an easy job, the pay in the juniors is not great, but the camaraderie within the referee ranks is good.

You need a thick skin, you need to block out the crowd, you need to stay level headed when 34 people are not.

Making it to the point where you get graded with the NSWRL or QRL refs is a huge achievement, one a lot of people have been happy with.

The cream rises to the top and they work their way through the grades before finally getting an opportunity at NRL level.

NRL referee Kasey Badger

This year, 111 years after the first game was played, we FINALLY saw our first female referee appointment to an NRL game. Belinda Sharpe (nee Sleeman).

This was not an appointment because she was female. This was not an appointment because, in this day and age, equality must be front of mind.

No, this was an appointment because she deserved it.

The NRL is a long way from Gracemere, near Rockhampton where Belinda first refereed an U/8’s game. Belinda was 18.

In 2019, Belinda and fellow NRL referee aspirant and NRL Touch Judge Kasey Badger were rewarded with fulltime referee contracts with the NRL.

Kasey, the wife of NRL Referee Gavin Badger, could have been in line for a debut before Sharpe until the week before Magic Round saw her make an error in relation to the rules that saw her dropped to Canterbury Cup.

But Kasey is a very, very good referee and I expect an NRL debut is in the near future for this very talented whistleblower.

NRL referee Gavin Badger

Despite the abuse, despite the “boys club” feeling among the old school Rugby League folk that also whinged when Michelle Payne won the Melbourne Cup, these ladies have risen to the top.

Belinda’s first few games have been brilliant. Cool, calm, clear and concise. She has a long career ahead of her.

But they are not alone, go to any footy field in any district, and you’ll see young girls refereeing U/6 to U/18’s everywhere.

Summer at Storey Park in Asquith, Heather at Seiffert Oval in Queanbeyan, 2 of the young ladies that are succeeding in a formerly male dominated pastime.

Former NRL referee Steve Clark can be seen around his old district with the North Sydney refs watching his daughter in the middle, giving tips at halftime on things to improve.

But the young guns are not all young women and I’ll name a couple of guys to keep an eye on in the coming years.

Tom Cambourn – From Balmain refs originally, is part of the NSWRL referee squad and will this week run the Sydney Shield game between Asquith and the Bulls at Storey Park.

A level headed referee who lives and breathes Rugby League.

Luke Heckendorf – Has had a stop start life in refereeing, crossing between Touch Footy and rugby league , but a very talented individual that will continue to improve under the tutelage at North Sydney of people like Steve Clark, Jon Stone and Scott Murray.

All the referees named today have a few things in common.

1.They love the game

2.They have been through thick and thin and stuck by the game in spite of the abuse

3.They won’t ever get Player of the Match recognition, but getting better appointments week in week out is what referees aspire to

4.They enjoy getting paid, but that’s not why they do this. Nobody would do this job just for the money They all deserve respect.

Players, coaches, officials and fans, please note – without referees, the game is nothing more than a weekend BBQ game with friends.

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