Belinda Sharpe has been named as one of the referees for Thursday night’s NRL match. (AAP: Joel Carrett)
Belinda Sharpe hopes to inspire young girls as she fulfils a childhood ambition by becoming the first woman in Australian rugby league’s 111-year history to referee a professional men’s top-grade match.
- Belinda Sharpe will referee the NRL match between the Broncos and Bulldogs in Brisbane
- Sharpe has previously refereed women’s State of Origin and men’s Queensland Cup matches
- The NRL says Sharpe has earned “her stripes” in becoming a top-grade referee
The trailblazing Sharpe has been named as one of the referees for Thursday night’s NRL fixture between the Broncos and Bulldogs at Lang Park.
“It’s been my dream to get to this point,” Sharpe said.
“I am really thrilled and proud. When you start refereeing you hope one day to be out in the middle of an NRL game. I am so excited about the game and my future.”
Sharpe said she hoped her appointment would pave the way for more women to take up refereeing.
She said young girls approach her most weekends to say they would also like to become referees.
“There are so many female referees across the country, particularly at grassroots,” Sharpe said.
“Hopefully they can see they can have a full-time career, knowing that the opportunity is there I hope that it inspires others.”
Sharpe, who grew up in the rugby league-mad central Queensland city of Rockhampton, fell in love with the game at a young age.
She wanted to be a part of the sport and refereeing was her chance.
“I understand the significance of it (being the first female referee) but for me it’s about always wanting to get to this point and wanting to do my job,” she said.
No favours given to Sharpe
Success has not come overnight for the 31-year-old.
Sharpe has been an NRL touch judge since 2014 and served in the same role at the 2017 Rugby League World Cup, in addition to refereeing women’s State of Origin and men’s Queensland Cup.
She was awarded a full-time refereeing contract in May alongside another female referee, Kasey Badger.
Sharpe said she felt her gender had never been a barrier, nor had she been treated any differently to her male colleagues.
“I’ve been on the same pathway as every other official to get to this point,” she said.
“I’ve had the same setbacks and triumphs and worked just as hard as everybody else.”
Sharpe has gained experience by refereeing men’s Queensland Cup matches. (Queensland Rugby League)
Sharpe admitted she had to develop a thick skin when it came to criticism aimed at match officials.
“I’ve experienced a number of different players and personalities,” she said.
“Each game brings its own challenges, but that’s part and parcel of being a referee.”
Fellow female trailblazer reaches out
Sharpe has received much advice during her journey to becoming an NRL referee and she was particularly grateful for some encouraging words from AFL field umpire Eleni Glouftsis.
Glouftsis made history when she was named as the AFL’s first female field umpire in 2017 and she reached out to Sharpe as the Queenslander chased her dream.
“I actually received a message from Eleni this morning which was really nice, congratulating me,” Sharpe said.
“We’ve been in contact the past 18 months or so, hopefully we can catch up … I’m sure we’ve got some notes and stories to compare.”
AFL pioneer Eleni Glouftsis reached out as Sharpe looked to become an NRL referee. (AAP: Tracey Nearmy)
NRL head of football Graham Annesley was delighted by Sharpe’s appointment, but he stressed it was based on her ability as a referee.
“Belinda had to earn her stripes and wouldn’t be here unless we thought she deserved the opportunity over all her colleagues,” he said.
Whether Sharpe is appointed for a second NRL match this season will largely depend on her performance on Thursday night.
“She will be assessed like any other official over the course of the weekend and what happens beyond here depends purely on performance,” Annesley said.
Sharpe’s appointment comes a week after Annesley raised concerns about the lack of depth in officiating ranks and the need to lift the standard.
“Hopefully this happening will give us more balance,” he said.
“It’s not that long ago that there weren’t many women playing the game. Now we’ve got the NRLW competition, second-tier leagues. Women’s sport has just exploded enormously.”