Canberra is a relationships town and for Ray White Canberra founder and chair Ben Faulks, women’s rugby is in the family.
That’s why, in keeping with the men’s Brumbies tradition, all Brumbies Super W players will now receive a recognition cap when they run out onto the field for their first game and Ray White will sponsor the Brumbies Women in Business Leadership and Sport luncheon to be held later this year.
Ben’s mum, Joanne Cole, was selected in the first-ever Australian Women’s team in 1993 – although they never played a game – and was also a player in the first ACT representative team.
Faulks’ sister-in-law and wife also both have deep connections to the women’s game here in Canberra, so it’s not surprising the real estate firm has stepped up to the plate to sponsor the Brumbies Super W team for their recognition caps.
While sport was always an interest for Joanne growing up, it was watching Mal Meninga play and, in her words, “wanting to do a tackle like that”, that really propelled her into union – despite the stigma attached to it at the time.
“I know he’s a league player, but in my family, there is a lot of union, so I started playing with the Wallaroos and then went to the Aussie squad – a massive personal achievement,” she laughs.
Her son Ben also played high-level rugby, but it’s Ben’s sister-in-law, Shellie Milward, who is currently making a splash in the women’s game. The first captain of the Brumbies Super W squad, she says corporate involvement goes a long way to show the sport is gaining recognition.
In some ways, you could say Shellie owes her stellar rugby career – which has seen her play for her country – to her brother.
“He used to rile me up for playing soccer so I went, all right then, I’ll play with the boys,” she said.
At age 12, Shellie remembers a difficult conversation with her dad when she was told she had to stop playing because there was no team for girls.
Returning to rugby union, Shellie has learnt more than rugby skills along the way.
She’s also learned an incredible amount of resilience, having spent over two years in rehab with successive shoulder and ACL injuries. She has stepped up into a mentoring role for the younger players, but hopes to return to the team to play in one more World Cup.
She’s also learnt how hard ‘professional’ women’s sport is – juggling a full-time job, multiple mandatory training and gym sessions, the bookwork, community engagement, fitness programs and attempting to balance a life with all of that – something she says that results in late nights and earlier mornings the next day.
As with many women’s sports, the Brumbies women don’t get paid. But they do put their careers on hold and miss important events that most wouldn’t.
But Shellie is adamant that this is not even the hardest part of it. This year’s Super W season only ran for two weeks, with the Brumbies playing four matches.
With a young team, it was a mixed season, but they finished on a high with a win against the Melbourne Rebels Women.
Shellie says all of the players do what they do for the love of the sport, and that equality is about more than just money. It’s also about playing on the bigger pitches, gaining recognition that what they do is on-par with the men’s team and having a weekly game to allow your body to recover.
Ben’s wife, Kylie Faulks, who is a Women’s Health Physiotherapist, is equally passionate about ensuring elite female athletes have the support they require.
“While some physios have done a few courses in women’s health, there are only three physios in Canberra – myself included – who have done a Masters.
“I’m frustrated with the inequality in sport and the barriers that these girls have to overcome.
“I think women rugby players needed to be treated as women rugby players, not as men, and that it’s acknowledged that they are a different outfit altogether.”
Kylie thinks it’s imperative that the unique challenges women are facing are addressed.
“We are so busy that sometimes there isn’t time to take the time we need to look after our bodies and we really do punish them.”
As for Joanne, she takes her hat off to those playing today and their level of professionalism. And the overdue recognition they’re receiving.