When the inaugural women’s NRL premiership kicked off last month, Cameron Johnston couldn’t help but sit back and smile.
Because it was he and his club, Cronulla Caringbah, who helped pioneer women’s rugby league in Australia.
It was the Sharks who in 2016 formed a pathway for girls from the shire to play in the Sydney Metropolitan Women’s Rugby League competition.
NRL game development officer Huw Ellis had found a girls team at Cronulla High School who were keen to start playing on weekends.
Sharks senior vice-president Johnston went to the school with now Jillaroos captain Sam Bremner to talk to the girls. From there, Cronulla Caringbah introduced under-14s, 16s and 18s teams to feed into their open women’s side.
Cronulla Caringbah had an incredible first season, winning the Sydney Metropolitan opens, 18s and 14s competitions with their under-16s sides also making the grand final.
The club went to the Cronulla Sharks the next year and formed a partnership where Cronulla Caringbah’s side would represent the NRL club in a series of exhibition matches.
It was a grueling schedule, with Cronulla Caringbah players playing their regular club games during the day before backing up for the nine-a-side exhibition matches at night time.
Those matches helped build momentum for the women’s game ahead of the 2017 women’s rugby league World Cup which was staged in the shire.
From there, the women’s NRL premiership was born.
“It’s been unreal,” Johnston said.
“I was so proud because I knew we were one of the ones who did it. Cronulla Caringbah, we did that. We helped do this. That’s huge for a little club from the shire.
“It’s pretty good when I think about it. What was really special was before that first exhibition when the girls beat St George, it was a full house at Shark Park. Our girls won on the bell with a Sam Bremner chip and chase on the hooter.
“That was the moment I knew it would blow up. We were the ones that awoke the sleeping giant.”
Cronulla Caringbah had a number of past or current players involved in the inaugural women’s NRL premiership.
Bremner, Jessica Sergis, Talesha Quinn and Georgie Brooker all turned out for St George Illawarra.
While Maddie Studdon, Ruan Sims, Corban McGregor, Nita Maynard, Quincy Dodd and Shontelle Stowers made it to the grand final with the Sydney Roosters.
Cronulla Caringbah have also had a number of other Jillaroos and NSW representatives including Allana Ferguson and Ruby Ewe.
It is for that reason Johnston was disappointed the Cronulla Sharks weren’t included in the inaugural WNRL but was hopeful they would be added in the future.
“It’s super annoying from our point of view. I think it came down to a money thing in the end. And the NRL probably had a good strategy with the four areas they picked for clubs,” he said.
“I personally think they should have picked Souths not the Roosters. They had a part in building it like ourselves. The only thing that concerns me a little bit is will these girls stay at the Roosters or St George or will they come back and play for their original clubs?
“These girls have played a lot of football since they were young and they’ve got to do what they can. Their window to play is only open for a few years. You can’t blame them. This is what they were fighting for for so many years.
“On one hand I’m annoyed but the other hand I totally understand because I’ve seen what these girls have gone through. They’ve sold their cars and belongings to go away and play for the Jillaroos.
“I’ve seen it first hand what they’ve done. That’s why Cronulla Caringbah wanted to help so much at the start.
“We helped take women’s league from park football to stadium football. It will be hard to fill those stadiums to start with but you’ve got to give it time to build.
“Hopefully the Sharks will come to the party so there is that pathway for girls in this area from the grassroots kids not just to women’s football but the NRL as well one day.”
Cronulla Caringbah’s production line is set to continue with the club giving a home to more than 100 girls playing rugby league or a varied form of the game, with the Sharks wanting to continue to build their women’s program into the future.