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In Her Words: Kristina Keneally

Words: Kristina Keneally

Souths Cares Chairperson Kristina Keneally tells you, our Members, about her involvement within Rugby League in celebration of NRL Women in League Round.

I saw my first Rugby League game in 1994, not long after I moved to Australia. I remember it was Manly vs Norths and it was fantastic. I just remember thinking this is the game for me. I love basketball, I love soccer, I didn’t like American Football, all the stop and start, and here was this game which was fast paced, energetic, hard-hitting, athletic, exciting and one that I could follow and that’s important as someone who didn’t grow up with Rugby League, playing it or knowing the rules. It was accessible and it was fun and it was entertaining.

When I was elected to Parliament in 2003 to represent the South Sydney area I was already a Rabbitohs fan. It was a great honour to be effectively the local Member for the South Sydney Rabbitohs and to support the team in that capacity. I had been taking my children to see Rabbitohs games since they were toddlers. Now they are teenagers, young adults, they are still lifelong Rabbitohs fans, the whole family is, and I can’t imagine being part of another Club. Part of the reason that the Rabbitohs were so attractive to me as a fan is that intense sense of fan loyalty and you see this right across the NRL. The clubs attract this intense loyalty from their fans, you become a Member of the Club and supporter and you wear the colours and you sing the song and you go to the game and you cheer on the team.

Growing up as an American I was used to that sense of lifelong loyalty to your sports team, usually in the United States through a university team, and so when I came to Australia and when I saw here’s a game I really like to watch and it has that same sense of community and loyalty and support that comes from the community in which it exists and its fans, that this is really the sport for me.

When Souths Cares started to do its work in the community I was still in Parliament and I was quite supportive. I was really pleased to see the Club using their strong links to the local South Sydney area to go into local schools and do things like reading development with young children, talk to them about healthy living and when the opportunity came after I left the job of Premier to join the Board I was really pleased to get the invitation. This was a chance to continue to work and serve the community I love, the community I lived in and to work with a Club that had been a major partner of that community for the decade that I served in Parliament. I had seen and supported and been part of the good work that the South Sydney Rabbitohs had done in the local area and this was such a terrific opportunity on the Board to continue to help them do that.

One of the things I love about Rugby League is that it is a sport that is accessible to so many people. Whether you are young or old, male or female, whether you were born in Australia or arrived here later as a migrant, everyone can be part of their local club, everyone is welcome. I have never experienced in rugby league a sense of ‘we are on the inside and you are on the outside’. It is truly that egalitarian, fair go, spirit of Australia expressed in a sport and in its community.

When I think about the role that women have played in Rugby League, I’m really proud that this is a sport that has had women in senior leadership positions; whether it be on the Board of the organisations or on the Board of clubs or indeed as club General Managers and Chairpersons. This is a sport, like a lot of sports, which has understood that women make up a significant proportion of its fan base. That women make up half the population and that women have a contribution to give and I’ve seen that increasingly over the two decades that I have now been part of this sport. The role of women has grown and an understanding too of the leadership role that Rugby League can play when it comes to demonstrating in the community. Respect for women, support for women and to take strong stands on things like violence against women and to support White Ribbon Day. That type of leadership has definitely grown quite strong over the past decade and to see that and to be proud of the fact that our players and our clubs are out there in the community supporting women, not just as fans and administrators and supporters but women in general and showing men in our community, young boys, young players coming through the system, that respect for women is fundamental to who we are as human beings, who we are as a sport and who we are as an Australian community.

I really enjoy this time in the rugby league season. It is really great too that it is a part of the season. It’s not something that we do outside of football season time, it’s something that we do when most people are paying attention with a height of people’s focus right now and we draw their attention to some of the most significant issues our community faces, some of the most significant challenges and some of the most significant opportunities and that’s the role that women play in the Australian community, the role that women play in this sport. We honour it, we uphold it and we acknowledge it and it’s great to see this week continue on as part of the calendar.

Anything we can do to get particularly young women out playing sport is so important. One, we know that women tend to stop playing sport in their early teenage years. If they’ve played sport, it’s about the time they tend to give it up and I feel that it’s really sad. I look back on my teenage years, to playing basketball, playing soccer, and I can genuinely say that they were some of the most formative experiences of my life.

There are very few opportunities or at least there were very few opportunities for me as a young woman growing up to learn to be competitive. To set a goal and work hard to achieve it. To understand how to be a gracious winner. To understand how to accept defeat with dignity. You work with a group of people, some of who I liked and some of who I didn’t, to achieve a common objective. Team sport can teach you all of those things and it can allow you to be, as a woman, fierce and physical and strong. I look at my time in politics and I often think I’m so glad that I had that time as a young female athlete because a lot of those skills I took into my political career, a lot of those skills that I now use in my television career, are skills that I learnt first in sport - how to hold my ground, how to defend, how to attack, how to be strong, how to win and how to lose.

I think one of the greatest things we can do for our daughters is to get them out playing sport, to get them out playing team sports in particular. I really like the idea of women taking on those sports that have been traditionally seen to be physical and have been traditionally seen to be the province of men because women are just as physically strong in their own capacity. They are just as capable of playing those types of sport and it is fantastic for them to test their endurance, their physicality, their strength, their mental and physical toughness so I’m a bit jealous. My knees are now just shot, I’m too far gone to be able to take up the sport of rugby League now but I love the idea that young women coming through have so many opportunities to play the sport.

I can say this though. I am the mother of two boys and I am the only person in my family who has scored a try in a match at Redfern Oval. Anytime anyone in my family tries to go on about their sporting powers, I just pull that one out – ‘Any of you scored a try at Redfern Oval? I have.’ I did it though in a Celebrity match to be fair although Gordon Tallis was there, Mario Fenech, there were a few big names on the field, just saying. I also bring this up in Souths Cares Board meetings just to win an argument from time to time.

Sport is a lot like politics in some ways; you’ve got a lot of competitive people, you’ve got people who are backing their own team or their own interest, you’ve got people who are seeking to get a small proportion of the population to back their own team or their own interest, they are trying to get people to buy their product and watch it on television. It’s not all that different to Politics and what I found as a woman in sport or in politics is that it’s important to learn to be comfortable in your own skin.

The most important thing you can be in any job you take on, but particularly in one in a competitive environment, is to be yourself. To be authentic to who you are. To not be afraid to fail, to understand that when you try something and don’t succeed, you can learn from it and it only makes you tougher. To build up that resilience and to never stop fighting for your right to be at the table, to have a voice, to have a say, to step up and take a position.

Just because a woman hasn’t done it before doesn’t mean it can’t be done by a woman.