Jacqueline Ansah, a player and match official from Ghana, tells her story in her own words of how she has broken ground as a female in Rugby League.
This article originally appears in the November 2023 edition of Forty20 Magazine.
"I love rugby league, so much so that as well as being a player in Ghana, I have become the first female match official.
I play for Bulls in the domestic league and was delighted to be selected in the Ghana squad to play in the first women’s senior internationals in Africa, against Nigeria. I got to know rugby league at university when they set up the first two female teams and promised a medal for everyone who played in the game! Then Covid happened and we didn’t get to play.
Training sessions started when we returned, gradually we got into contact and it was what I wanted to do. I was very excited because I realised there was a position for everybody. Before I started playing, I had a perception that it was just for people of a big build. For me, I found a place on the wing because of my fitness and speed. I can make my contribution from there and keep out the way of the forwards! I was then introduced to the officiating side as the fourth official and the interest in following that path grew from there.
I had my first experience touch judging a touch tournament last year, followed by more opportunities in the men’s and Middle East Africa championships in 2022. I was also the referee for the youth championship that year.
I loved it and this season I have refereed in the men’s championship, including the second Origin game, and in ‘Mayhem’ a mixed match. I’ve just turned 28 and know I am not going to be able to play forever so am making sure I stay involved in some capacity. That’s the conflict for now, a wish to do both. It’s not so difficult and my hope is to get other women to come on board.
I’m happy to be in there first, showing how it can be done. There is a little pressure because I need to go better to encourage others to follow – but I can’t stop now. The support is there on the technical side; that has been very good. Women’s sport is growing in Africa but there has initially been reluctance for rugby league because the impression was it was so violent. Why should ladies play such a sport? But we are trying to teach them you can still be a woman and play. It’s empowering. People are starting to understand it’s also about how you train and the discipline and fitness that goes with it.
When I officiate, the men have more respect for me as a woman. I don’t think that anyone thought that a woman would be controlling a men’s game so soon and they are very good with – and proud of – me.
I have seen women in charge of NRL games. It is so good that I have people I can look up to and know I am not alone. They have shown what can be achieved at the highest level.
There are women Super League players, like Caitlin Beevers and Tara Jones, who are building careers as match officials too. I’d love some form of mentorship from such as them to see how they combine the roles.
I’m hoping that once all the official certification is completed, I will also be able to start refereeing outside of Ghana with so much rugby league now starting to be played across the continent. I am really looking forward to that possibility.
The sport suits African athletes, male and female. A lot of them watch the NFL and so they have something to compare it with.
Telling people about rugby league is quite easy. It’s just that we don’t pad up and move forward and pass backwards; that similarity makes it easier to spread the word and get them to try the game.
I’d really advocate everyone out there to support us. We are trying to build the sport and need all the help we can get, especially for the women, so they can have a sense of belonging, and especially as match officials.