MOMENTUM building behind women’s rugby on the Darling Downs is helping to trigger pioneering initiatives to improve the safety, wellbeing and status of players taking the field this season.

Toowoomba Rangers Bullette Carissa Kemp joined the club three years ago, and said she’d seen their numbers explode.

And it’s not just participation which has improved.

“There’s certainly more recognition for women which is wonderful, it’s not just – the men play rugby and the women have a go,” Kemp said.

“It’s women are in it and they have every right to be and they hold their ground.

“There are some weekends when we win our games and maybe the men don’t.

“We support the men’s games, they also come and support our games. There’s a great culture at Rangers so it’s great to see that it’s even, and that our numbers are doing really well.”

The Toowoomba Rangers Bullettes in Roma.

The energy surrounding the women’s game is something Darling Downs Rugby Referee Association’s new president, Ian McGowan, said he enjoyed watching too.

“Women and girls play the game with unbridled joy,” McGowan said.

“They absolutely love it and it certainly doesn’t lack passion, power, pace or commitment.

“But it’s played with respect for each other, respect for their teammates and supporters and for us as match officials and referees.”

Downs women in action. IMAGE: Toowoomba Bears Rugby Club

Downs referees made the decision to appoint match officials equally to the A grade men and senior women’s competition first this season, before appointing them to B Grade and C Grade mens games.

“That’s a respect issue from our perspective,” McGowan said.

“To respect that that’s the senior level of the women’s game and that has equal status in our eyes to the senior level of the men’s game.”

The same protocol is being following for the teenage girls and boys’ matches on a Friday night.

“The feedback we’re getting both from the players and our own referees who do those matches has been nothing but positive. The whole standard of the game has increased,” McGowan said.


The willingness of referees to get behind the women’s game hasn’t gone unnoticed either.

“The refs on the Darling Downs are so lovely,” Carissa Kemp said.

“If we don’t know something or there are new players, they help guide us and it’s really encouraging how supportive they are of all the players.”

Last weekend the Downs referee association hosted its own version of a Ladies Day, with officials wearing custom jerseys to celebrate and recognise the work of all women in the game on the Mother’s Day weekend.

“For us as referees, it was something we’d never done before. It really caught the attention of the players,” Ian McGowan said.

Referees in their Women in Downs Rugby jerseys.

The biggest change this year was the addition of a dedicated Women in Downs Rugby Coordinator.

Sue-Ann McGowan approached the board to create the position, after witnessing an incident from the sidelines of an under 13 girls game where a player came off and told her coach she’d been hit in the chest.

“Her coach was her male high school teacher. He couldn’t deal with the word ‘breast’, he could not support her in any way, he could only concentrate on the game in front of him,” Sue-Ann McGowan said.

“In that moment I went, I’ve got to support her and I’ve got to support him.

“I’ve got to develop a language to support him, so he is safe to interact over this issue with this player.”

From that moment McGowan said she was determined to create a new culture where players could feel safe to report injuries and be provided the appropriate care.

Fast and furious footy on the Darling Downs. IMAGE: Toowoomba Bears Rugby Club

McGowan quickly realised it was a huge issue going almost completely unnoticed in the sport.

“90 percent of women who get injured in their sport do not report to anyone,” McGowan said.

Now she’s almost finished delivering education sessions on breast care at clubs across the region and is about to start a new series on concussion.

“I can hear first hand from the women, if they have concerns about interactions with their club, or interactions with the governing bodies,” McGowan said.

Sue-Ann McGowan delivering an education session to Condamine players.

Her work will culminate in a two-day, Women in Downs Rugby Carnivale at the end of this season, bringing together women from all aspects of the game to share and learn from each other.

With participation skyrocketing, Sue-Ann said it was a critical time to get the culture right for generations to come.

“All the women who are playing now are cutting the track. They’re cutting through the wilderness, they’re saying this is the path,” she said.


“I think it’s really vital that the women are involved in this.

“If they don’t have input into it at this level, they’re going to feel it’s just coming from above them.

“Yes, there needs to be structure, but I want them to be part of that structure.”

Carissa Kemp said it was great to see Downs Rugby moving in this direction.

“We support each other but to know that there’s that external support, and it’s not just us trying out best – there are other people who are cheering us on, encouraging us, making sure we have the support we need, it’s a huge encouragement,” she said.

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