History as female refs promoted to full-time ranks
MATCH officials Kasey Badger and Belinda Sleeman have created rugby league history by becoming the first women to be offered full-time contracts with the NRL.
It's not only a monumental step for rugby league - but also the Australian sporting landscape given some of our greatest female athletes, including Olympians, netballers, AFL and rugby league players, still have to work while chasing their sporting excellence.
"Women's sport is just booming, but really there's not a lot of females who can live the life of a professional athlete,'' Badger said.
"Unless you're a world champion, and there's probably a couple of tennis players as well, but pretty much the rest of our Australian female athletes have to hold down another job.
"So for Belinda and I to have this as our full-time job now it can only lead to us improving ourselves, improving our physical capacity and improving our refereeing skills.''
Both Badger and Sleeman have impressed with their progression since first stepping into the NRL system on a part-time basis in 2014.
And crucially, Badger said their increasing presence - be it with the whistle in the lower grades or on the touch line in the NRL - had paved the way for more young girls and women to take up refereeing.
"We saw once Belinda and I started running touch lines in the NRL the numbers of female officials across the country rose from five per cent to 10 per cent,'' Badger said.
"We saw that number jump in the space of three years.
"So for us now to be put in this position where we're now full-time elite athletes can only be a positive and hopefully it continues that trend of growth of female participation in the game.''
Badger said she was confident that her NRL debut as a lead referee wasn't far away.
"All I've got to do is keep performing in the middle and doing the right things,'' Badger said.
"I've got faith. I wouldn't be here if I didn't think it was achievable.''
Alongside Badger and Sleeman, impressive young referee Todd Smith has also earned a full-time contract.
NRL referees boss Bernard Sutton said the announcement was pivotal to the future development and quality of depth within the refereeing ranks.
"The real benefit is, we're now getting some real competition for spots in first grade,'' Sutton said.
"We've had a squad of 19 referees for the last few years, but by the time you factor in some injuries we've down to 16 fit referees at one point, which is not a great spot to be.
"This is a win for the game.
"What it does is send a message to every young person out there that there is a genuine career opportunity for you, male or female.''