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Belinda Sharpe: NRL refereeing ‘business as usual’

Ditching journalism for refereeing, Belinda Sharpe became the first female official in the NRL’s 111-year history.

Portrait of Belinda Sharpe

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Belinda Sharpe: NRL refereeing ‘business as usual’

Belinda Sharpe grew up in Rockhampton in Central Queensland, a rugby league heartland. “I grew up watching the game with my dad,” she says. “I loved it and I wanted to become involved in the game somehow, but playing wasn’t an option back in those days.”

She had played and refereed a lot of touch football, however, and had worked her way up to be a referee in the senior men’s competition. So, when a call came for more rugby league referees, she took the opportunity to switch codes. 

“I signed up and it all started from there,” she explains. “It’s similar to when you’re a player. You catch the bug, and you want to see how far you can progress.

“I started out refereeing because I loved it and wanted to be involved, plus it was a great way to spend my Saturday and Sunday mornings. But once I became a bit competitive and wanted to see how far I could go, I told my parents I was moving to Brisbane for work. The truth was, I wanted to progress my refereeing career,” she laughs.

From journalist to rugby league referee

Belinda had completed a journalism degree at university and started covering news for Rockhampton’s Morning Bulletin. She then moved into sport, the beat she had hoped to cover. 

“But it became tricky being a referee and a journalist at the same time, so I had to choose one career over the other. I went down the path of refereeing,” she explains.

When she first started refereeing, Belinda didn’t really consider there weren’t many other female referees involved in rugby league. “I just saw it as an opportunity to become involved in the game and do something I was passionate about,” she says.

“So, I wasn't looking at obstacles or considering being a female referee as a challenge. There have been challenges along the way, but there always are for every official in any sport and I don't think it was any different for me.

“It's how you approach things too,” she adds. “I’ve always wanted to be treated exactly the same as every other referee and follow the same pathway. I've been adamant about doing that the whole way through; that's been really important to me.”

Belinda says that spectators and players were surprised initially to see her officiating in a traditionally male-dominated sport. “But as you become more familiar to the crowd and players, a level of appreciation and respect develops for the job you do. At the end of the day, people just want to see you do the job in a fair and consistent way.”

First female official in 111 years of NRL

Belinda made her NRL debut as a touch judge in the Wests Tigers-Cronulla Sharks match in the last round of 2014. In doing so, she became the first woman in 111 years of NRL history to officiate in a game.

“It's natural you have more nerves in such a big game and on debut,” she says. “I felt a combination of excitement and nerves and it was as great an experience as I could have hoped for. 

“The game was fast and physical – it was everything I expected it to be. It was such a great moment, and I had my family there with me to share it. It can be a lonely journey sometimes being a referee, but those are the moments you work towards for so long and it makes it all worthwhile.

“It was a fantastic occasion being at Leichhardt Oval too,” she adds, “it's such a sacred place in rugby league.”

First to referee a full NRL match

At the start of the 2019 season, Belinda was one of two women – the other being Kasey Badger – to be given full-time referee contracts by the NRL. In 2019, in her 100th match as an NRL official, she became the first woman to referee a full NRL game, in the round 18 match between the Brisbane Broncos and the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs.

“You understand the sense of the occasion and that there's been a lot of media attention leading up to the game,” she says. “People were excited to see the first female to referee a game.

“But, from my perspective, it was business as usual, I was going out to do a job – something I'd done every week to that point, although this was obviously at the next level. There were some anxious moments leading into the game and I knew a lot of people would be watching me, which is unusual for an official.

“We don't want to be the focus of the game,” Belinda explains. “We try to go about our business and facilitate the game so that the players take centre stage. But when I ran out with the support of my teammates around me, I was able to settle into the game and enjoy the occasion,” she adds.

‘No longer a male-female thing’

Belinda is philosophical when it comes to defining traditional male and female roles in sport – and specifically refereeing in rugby league. “I think we're past those days where it's a male and female thing. Now it's just about doing the job and doing it well. That's certainly the way I've always wanted to be treated and I've been lucky enough to experience that,” she says.

“We're definitely heading in the right direction with more females becoming involved in the NRL,” she adds, “but I think it's something that's going to take time. It’s just taken people a long time to see there's an opportunity to become involved, whether it's officiating or some other capacity within the game.

“I think we're slowly seeing more females coming into this space. That number is increasing at a good rate, and I think we're going to continue to see that growth.”

Reflecting on her relationship with players as a rugby league referee, Belinda says: “The great thing about our game is that there are so many different characters and personalities. We want to encourage that but it’s important to make sure the relationship is respectful both ways.

“So, we always speak respectfully to captains and players within a game, and we expect the same in return. We also understand that sometimes there are circumstances where players get emotional in the heat of the moment and sometimes they say or do
things they probably wish they hadn't. 

“However, we have the experience at this level in dealing with the different people, personalities and challenges that can pop up within a game. That's part and parcel of our role and it’s what we do,” she explains.

“A lot of people like to use labels like ‘pioneer’ for me, which doesn’t necessarily sit well with me. I just see it for what it is – me doing my job. But, if what I'm doing by refereeing can help inspire more females to become involved in the game, that's definitely something I'm proud of,” she concludes.