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How a 33-year-old mum changed the face of rugby league referees

“She became the centre of critique,” Rae’s daughter Trudy said. “They made it hard for her. She wasn’t welcomed with open arms.”

Despite not wanting to do the job themselves, Rae was criticised incessantly by dads on the sidelines from the outset. The abuse eventually got so bad she did something about it.

Deidre Rae, Australia's first female rugby league referee, meets NRL referee Belinda Sharpe.

Deidre Rae, Australia’s first female rugby league referee, meets NRL referee Belinda Sharpe.Credit:NRL Photos

Having studied up on all the rules and regulations, Rae put in an expression of interest to get her official certification with NSW Rugby League.

“But they told me if I got my ticket, I couldn’t join the Parramatta District Referees Association and that I would be restricted in what games I could do,” Rae said. “Because I was female.”

Unphased, she completed all her classes and took the exam to become certified. Even then, Rae believes the test was made extra hard to try and stop her passing.

“There was 14 of us. I had just one mistake, three boys had a few mistakes and still passed – the rest of them failed,” she said. “Afterwards, I said ‘look I’ve just had an excellent pass in that and it was a very hard exam, would I be allowed to referee some higher level games?’

“I was told ‘no, because I was not allowed in the men’s dressing rooms because they’re half-naked and they use bad language’.”

Rae was certified to referee as high as first-grade but the chairman of the NSWRL shut down her dreams via the media.

“He said to the paper, ‘I don’t think she could referee at the proper standard and she’s a female’,” she said.

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Rae was only allowed to referee social games, charity matches and continued with the school games for the next five years. She would happily show her certification card every time she was questioned by a dad on the sidelines.

Her struggle, though, was not forgotten.

Before women in league round this week, Rae – now 83 and living on the Central Coast – said she was overwhelmed when Belinda Sharpe and Kasey Badger were signed onto full-time refereeing contracts last year.

“It makes me think well maybe I did some good,” she said. “I enjoyed what I did. It was only a short career but its wonderful for people 51 years later to acknowledge it, males and all.”

Refereeing for her second year in the NRL now on a full-time contract, Sharpe said her experience was completely the opposite to Rae.

“With Deidre’s story, it was disappointing in some respects but inspiring that she continued to push the boundaries,” Sharpe said. “Women like Deidre probably didn’t realise at the time that their actions paved the way for me.”

Despite being one of the only female referees when growing up in Rockhampton, Sharpe said her experiences have only ever been positive from grassroots to the NRL.

“Rockhampton is quite a rugby league heartland and I watched the games with my Dad. I wanted to find a way to be involved and refereeing was that for me,” she said.

One thing that both agreed hasn’t changed is the personalities of some of the men on-field.

Rae still reflects fondly on one of her charity match games when one of the players approached her early in the match.

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“One of the guys, a big forward, he was eyeing me and he said to me: ‘What are we supposed to call you sir or Mrs?’,” she said. “I just said referee will do just fine, thank you.”

Sharpe said attitudes on-field and on the sidelines still remains a challenge for female referees but said fans seem to be more concerned with the accuracy of referees more so than their gender.

“When you reach this level we’ve come across many situation and people on the field … so experience helps as much as anything else,” she said.

With Sharpe and Badger becoming the first professional female referees last year, Sharpe said she only hopes the achievement will encourage more women to come on board.

“There’s that age-old saying, you can’t be what you can’t see, but for me there weren’t that many women in refereeing when I started,” she said. “Me being able to show other females that there is a pathway, that is something I am proud and that can hopefully encourage other girls to get involved in the game.”

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