“A couple of girls were sitting on the side-line and they asked at full time ‘Is it hard to be a referee?’ and I said, ‘Well, I'm not gonna lie, yeah, it is.’”
With over 20 years of experience as one of the few female referees within the Rugby League community, Jillian McRoberts has forged a path for women to follow in her footsteps and has a clear vision for the future of the profession.
In 2019, she became the first female to referee a senior men’s Grand Final in the Victorian competition, going on to become the only woman on the new NRL Touch Victorian Referee Advisory Panel in 2021, repeating her Grand Final appointment in the 2022 Men’s division.
McRoberts reflects on her beginnings in the refereeing circuit with honesty and joy. Coming from a small country town in South Australia, rugby league was arguably the most under-appreciated sport she could consider.
“I probably look at refereeing a little bit differently to most other people in rugby league,”
“I started well before women were even considered to participate in league. It was a very difficult time trying to break into what was considered a very male-dominated area, especially, with the attitudes that were around females in sport at that particular time.”
Picking up touch footy while at University in South Australia, McRoberts broke onto the Victorian Rugby League scene where she met NRL Victoria General Manager, Brent Silva. As her first referee advisor, the mentorship took her from a green referee to something better.
“Before that, I'd been a touch football referee and had never crossed codes because of the stigma around it being very male-dominated,”
“In the end, I got sick of sitting on the side-line and just thought ‘You know what I'm gonna give this a crack. I'm gonna see if I'm any good at it’,
“A lover of league against all odds.”
Speaking to McRoberts, she exudes a sense of pride and passion in her experiences. Her persistence and perseverance to not only exist within the rugby league community but to make crucial changes from the inside out is a testament to McRoberts' strength, but it never came easy.
“Oh, it was hard to be taken seriously, like, very hard to be taken seriously,”
“I know I had to put a few noses out of joint to get anywhere. I know I upset a few people because I was determined to change things,
At the end of the day, the sport isn't about the individual, it's not about the referee, it's about the betterment and the greater aspect of what people can contribute to the sport.
You would be quick to forget her extensive experience with the youthful optimism and excitement she speaks about footy with. You would also be forgiven for forgetting the hardships she faced, both personal and in pursuit of the sport, to reach this outlook on the game we all love.
While trying to forge her way into the rugby league world, like many women, McRoberts was acutely aware that her gender was something her new-found peers were seeing as an obstacle.
“I feel the women referees put up with the reality that it was very male-dominated at the time,”
“It certainly paved a way for the youth to get taken seriously and that's what I always wanted,
“I wanted women to get taken seriously in sport and not be looked at like, ‘Oh, you're just a woman you don't know the rules’ or ‘You're just a woman, you can't keep up’ and all the other connotations that are thrown around women in league.”
Like many other female referees, instead of a roadblock, the connotation instead served as a motivator. A motivator to make changes, question the status quo and open the doors for future generations – all to maintain the life of community rugby league.
“At the time, I remember them always telling me that they don't have enough numbers, ‘referees don't have enough numbers’. Well, if you don't have enough numbers, why are you not willing to accept female referees in those numbers?”
“If we [women] come to you with a solution, don't tell me that's not a solution just because you're not willing to let go of some sort of misogynistic expectation that all referees should be male,
"There's been a massive improvement [with women in the field] but there had to be the transition out of the old ways of thinking. It had to leave. It had to move on. Otherwise, the sport was never going to get to the point it's at now with women being involved and able to play the sport that they love,
It's been a very long path. It's been well over 20 years, but it's incredible. I love it.
As an accredited referee coach, McRoberts voluntarily and actively supports, mentors, and educates other junior female and male referees, continuing to take the action needed to allow women to be accepted as referees in the rugby league community.
Her passion for raising the next generation of referees has recently infiltrated her working life. McRoberts now holds a teaching position at one of Victoria’s top schools, Haileybury, where she helps youth grow and develop through the college’s elite integrated sporting program.
“I'm so lucky to be working at Haileybury because it affords so many opportunities to the next generation of sporting stars.
I'm able to look at refereeing differently. I look at it as a development of the future players and now, as a teacher, I see that.
“I see my students coming through the sporting system...I see them grow and develop as people and I look forward to seeing their future as they grow into strong players on the field.
McRoberts attributes rugby league as her segue into teaching, learning methods of effective communication needed for teaching within her role as a referee.
“I'm currently Victoria's leading female Level 6 touch footy referee so it's great to be able to see the youth. I see a lot of the players that are coming through the system and a lot of them start at touch footy.”
Her already infectious love for refereeing was clear, but McRoberts opens up even more as she discusses the talent she has seen throughout her career. Having appeared at competitions all along the east coast, McRoberts has come across her share of rising stars, alongside some familiar faces.
“I refereed [Ryan] Papenhuyzen when he was a Junior and he played in the New South Wales State Cup,”
“I’m pretty sure that that's where I remember first seeing him and I thought, ‘Well, this player has got it. He's going to be something’,
“Benji Marshall was another one we had the pleasure of seeing coming through the Touch Footy era. I certainly had the pleasure of referring him when he was young.”
While the progress female referees have made shows in the increasing representation and general attitudes, McRoberts shares there are still improvements needed, not only surrounding women but with refereeing.
“The referee abuse is something that needs to be stamped out and stopped. That's why we lose our male and female referees, regardless of our gender,”
“When you're copping abuse from players all you want to do is go ‘I have had enough.’
“A couple of girls were sitting on the side-line, and they asked at full time ‘Is it hard to be a referee?’ and I said, ‘Well, I'm not gonna lie, yeah, it is’,
“You've got to be prepared for the fact that then they're not gonna like your decisions, but sometimes just because of your gender, they don't like your decisions. That's a reality of how the culture is with some people,
“Not everybody has transcended into that next stage, which is that men and women can equally do the same thing. You have to be prepared. You'd have to be capable of being able to have a thick skin.”
Following the honest reality check, McRoberts shares a message of strength and hope for those, like the girls on the sideline, interested in pursuing a career in refereeing or rugby league.
“My advice is if you love it don't let anything stop you,”
I never let anything stop me. Even when I was told that I wasn't allowed to, or that I should give up, I still didn't let that stop me
“I can, in some ways, sit back and go Belinda [Sleeman] and Kasey [Badger] are there because women like me wanted a better world. So, for me, I get excited when I get to witness them in action on the field because of the tiny contribution I got to have in being able to facilitate that,
“It's a behind-the-scenes contribution but anyone that took those baby steps forward knew this was always going to lead to a good outcome.”