Australian Women's Rugby League Given Equal Pay

Ahead of the 2021 Women’s Rugby League World Cup final on Saturday at Old Trafford, we thought we’d explore that code of the game, which is especially popular in Australia. Their women’s team, the Jillaroos, are set to compete against New Zealand’s Kiwi Ferns, attempting to defend their status as world champions since 2013.

Take a dive down under with us and learn a little more about Australia women's rugby league and broader issues that affect the way the tournament is played – including equal pay for women's rugby players and how investment can affect performance. 

Australian Rugby League

Rugby league is an immensely popular sport in Australia. It has a long history: the first men’s game was played in 1907. Women’s matches followed shortly after in 1921, with one game in Sydney attracting around 30,000 spectators.

Today, match broadcasts are among the most watched programmes on Australian television, and it’s played by hundreds of thousands of men, women, boys and girls, from grassroots to elite level.

Does that mean there’s a balanced number of men’s and women’s rugby players?

Rugby league is part of the fabric of everyday life for so many men and women in Australia. However, there’s a history of women being spectators or occupying volunteering or administrative roles in clubs, rather than actually participating in the sport.

We all know that an outdated (yet changing) stereotype of rugby as a macho, man’s game lends the money and support to follow. That lack of solid financial incentive can discourage girls and women from playing. 

These factors are reflected in the numbers: Australian national participation figures released in 2021 show that female participants in rugby number 16,899, which is just 10% of the total national participation number of 160,691 – a demoralising figure.

However, the stats also tell us that while male participation is slightly falling off, female participation is rising – as is the case globally. 

Are women’s rugby players paid the same as the men in the Rugby League World Cup?

This rise has not yet meant a corresponding improvement in ensuring that male and female teams are given consistently equitable treatment. The women’s final at Old Trafford is almost sold out, and will be broadcast live by the BBC, which are heartening signs of an exponential growth of interest in women’s rugby.

However, female players in this year’s World Cup generally have full-time or second jobs alongside their rugby league career – with some, as this article observes, taking leave without pay to participate in the tournament, largely unlike their male, fully professional counterparts. The fact that the women’s teams clearly perform to an equally high standard, and play just as many tournament matches, does not correspond to financial parity.

This year, however, the Jillaroos will finally be paid at the same rate as the men's side, after weeks of negotiations between the Australian Rugby League Commission (ARLC) and Rugby League Players Association (RLPA). Each of the 24 squad members is set to take home a minimum of $30,000. 

This is a massive increase from the last World Cup in 2017, in which the Jillaroos – the tournament’s victors – took home just $3000 each.

Why does this matter, and what does it mean for women’s rugby?

Without a meaningful, equitable income, and the respect for the women’s game that this would signify, women’s rugby is less likely to have the same level of visibility as the men’s sport and will likely seem appealing to a smaller number of future potential players, particularly those who suffer financial hardship and other barriers to playing.

The gap in revenue between men’s and women’s teams – of which the Australian Rugby League disparity is just one obvious example – is linked to a comparative lack of investment and superior facilities, meaning women’s rugby teams just don’t get the same number of opportunities to succeed as the men’s.

The topic was raised very recently when England was knocked out of the Women's Rugby League World Cup semi-finals by New Zealand on Monday.

In an interview with Sky Sports, England’s Jodie Cunningham proposed that their defeat was in part due to having fewer full-time players and a comparative lack of ‘professionalism’ compared to the Kiwi Ferns.

The Jillaroos were also mentioned: two sides that benefit from playing in the more professional, structured setup of the NRLW (the national rugby league competition for female players), and who have many more full-time athletes on their teams.

Cunningham was quoted as saying, 

"You can't avoid the difference it would make if we were semi-professional or professional players, because we'd have the time and resource and the ability to invest, and the attractiveness for young girls coming through".

Where can I watch the final?

After an incredibly decisive 82-0 semi-final victory against Papua New Guinea, the Jillaroos will face the Kiwi Ferns on Saturday. If you don’t already know where you can watch the final, check out our handy links - or you could enter our competition to win tickets, head to Manchester and watch the action up close!

However you watch, it’s going to be an enthralling final, with arguably the two strongest teams going head to head: the Cup has only ever been claimed by either Australia or New Zealand since its inception in 2000.

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