Ipswich rugby league fans will see a familiar face when they tune into the Broncos game on Thursday night.
Referee Belinda Sharpe (Sleeman) spent years as a touch judge in the Ipswich competition before becoming the first female appointed to a centre referees position in a National Rugby League game.
After six years of senior football, Sharpe will officiate on Thursday night with lead referee Ben Cummins, who has been an on-field official in 352 NRL matches.
The trailblazer arrived in Ipswich 8 years ago from Rockhampton.
She was refereeing the U14 age group at the time.
She cut her teeth running the fields of Ipswich each season until she made her way into A grade before joining the Queensland Referees Academy.
Ipswich Rugby League Referees Association president Adrian Steele said she worked harder than most of the guys because she had to.
“She is a very helpful young lady, very astute, she studies hard,” Mr Steele said.
“Her interpretation of the rules are excellent and she’s worked harder on her fitness than the guys because she had to.
“We gave her more reserve grade than A grade, because reserve grade was tougher and because she was petite she had to learn how to handle the men and she did that very well.
“She is an excellent role model but the main thing about her is her love of the game.”
Belinda Sharpe (second from left) with the officiating team at the recent Women’s State of Origin in Sydney. Photo: Facebook, NRL Officiating
Sharpe was awarded a full-time refereeing contract in May, alongside another female referee, Kasey Badger.
Sharpe said she has never felt her gender was a barrier to her work.
“We’re all certainly in a high-pressure environment anyway as referees so I don’t see any difference between any of us. We just go out on the field to do a job to the best of our ability,” she told NRL.com.
“We can’t focus on anything externally and I won’t be. My gender is irrelevant in that respect.
“I’ve never come across anything like that [sledging]. At the end of the day they just want a referee who is capable of doing their job and it doesn’t necessarily matter who they are, or whether they’re male or female. They just want you to do a good job.
“That hasn’t changed over the years in any grade I’ve been involved in. Once you demonstrate you’re competent in that role, that’s all that matters.
“The players are used to seeing me out there since I’ve been doing it for a few years now so they don’t treat me any differently.”
NRL CEO Todd Greenberg said Sharpe’s appointment was a significant moment for the game.
“This is an historic moment for the game and one which should be celebrated,” he said.
NRL Head of Football Elite Competitions Graham Annesley said Sharpe had worked hard and deserved the opportunity.
“I know Belinda will be keen to use this opportunity as another stepping stone in her career,” Mr Annesley said.
“Belinda has officiated extremely well in lower tier matches and also in the recent Women’s State of Origin. She has also been outstanding as a touch judge for several years.
“She has served her apprenticeship, and earned her elevation on merit.”
Sharpe found her place in the game after being a huge rugby league fan growing up.
At that time, the pathway for girl players finished at age 12.
For the last 111 years the code has never had a female referee for little girls to look up to.
“I just loved rugby league growing up and I played touch football, ended up refereeing touch footy and made the transition from there,” Sharpe told NRL.com.
“The game has been my passion and I’ve turned that into a full-time career.”
Now, girls watching the game, forming dreams of their own can see trailblazers like Ali Brigginshaw and Belinda Sharpe making history on the field and in the centre.