So it's no surprise that Ferguson was absolutely crushed when she turned 12 and wasn't allowed to play with the boys anymore. "I'd been playing with the boys since I was five. I somehow convinced Mum and Dad, who were a little bit hesitant, to let me play. It didn’t take very long to convince them that I could hold my own ground out there. I wanted to be like my older brother and dad. I stopped playing when I was 12, because I was forced to – girls can only play through to the under 12s with the boys. I was devastated. I didn’t watch the NRL for two years, I cried myself to sleep for three weeks or something stupid."
Ferguson is stoked that she's back playing her beloved game. "The first year I got back into league I was fortunate enough to make the NSW team, then I made the Jillaroos. It was a dream come true."
She also plays for the team she grew up supporting, the Cronulla Sharks Women’s 9s side. She made history as one of the first women to sign a professional NRL playing contract – a dream come true. We chat to her about her desire for the women's game to develop – and her annoyance when people say things like, "Oh, you girls actually play so well and you’re so tough”.
How did you start playing rugby league?
I started playing when I was five with the boys, and girls can only play through to the under 12s with the boys. I somehow convinced mum and dad, who were a little bit hesitant, to let me play when I was five. It didn’t take very long to convince them that I could hold my own ground out there. I wanted to be like my older brother and dad. I stopped playing when I was 12, because I was forced to. I was devastated, I didn’t watch the NRL for two years, I cried myself to sleep for three weeks or something stupid. And then I started playing again a few years ago, but I played everything else in between. I think Oztag for me was the most similar to rugby league, I played that for Australia. I was the youngest person to represent Australia in the opens team, which was pretty cool, and then I got scouted to play Rugby 7s so I did that for a little bit.
You grew up supporting the Sharks – is it amazing that you get to play for them now?
Yeah, because I grew up in the Shire, that was just my team. When I was little my dream was to play for the Sharks, so it’s crazy that – and even if you had have asked me two years ago, I never would have thought that it would happen – but the fact that somehow in my head that goal has been there since I can remember, and the fact that it’s come true… I obviously thought I was going to be playing with the boys, so it was around when ET was playing. I was like, “I’m going to play with him one day, I’m going to play with Gal one day.”
How are you feeling about the development of women’s rugby league at the moment?
We don’t have an NRL competition as of yet, but for a sport to grow and evolve it’s all got to happen on club land, so the Cronulla Sharks are extremely supportive of our women’s game and they backed us and put time and money and staff into our game to have our team. We’ve had contracts drawn up and there was money involved. But yeah, this was the first year, 2017, that we’d ever been able to play for the Sharks – the future is kinda looking a bit brighter, which is unreal for those girls that are in school and coming through now.
Do you think the NRL will establish a women’s competition soon?
Look, the NRL in my opinion, they need to make [a national] competition. I think it’s unfortunate that it hasn’t happened yet. We’ve got women’s cricket, we’ve got netball that’s played on free-to-air TV, the Rugby 7s girls did unreal in Rio, the AFL started [a league]. For me it’s a little bit devastating because I’m just a league-y and I’m obsessed with it and I know how much people love rugby league, so the fact that the option isn’t there for girls just yet is a little bit sad, but that’s why we’re working so hard and kind of paving the way so that it is there for them in the future. In Sydney there are girls comps now, so girls don’t have to stop playing at 12 years of age, which is unreal, because honestly, I just had my life shut down when I was 12. I was so devastated, I didn’t know what to do. So the fact that that doesn’t happen to those girls now, at least in the bigger regions like Sydney, is just amazing. But the NRL have got a 15-team competition for the men, and they can produce that for the women. It always takes sponsors getting on board and someone at the top believing in it happening. As soon as the right people know it can happen, it’ll make so many dreams come true, and it’ll make the NRL a family event. It won’t matter if you’re a boy or a girl, you can watch the footy and aspire to be any player that you want to be. It’ll turn it into a holistic family game, I guess.
Are you excited about the 2017 Women’s Rugby League World Cup, starting in November?
Oh absolutely, Harvey Norman has made that possible, and the fact that I’m a Shire girl and it’s played in Cronulla is unreal. I’m also a local highschool teacher so we’ve got so many of the kids from all the schools around all pumped up, they’re super-hyped to watch the girls play locally. The fact that it’s a stand-alone event, sponsors are crucial, the media also getting behind it is going to be crucial, especially closer to the event, really pushing the dates and the games out there so that we do get people turning up. Because the biggest thing for the women’s game, it’s not that people don’t like women or chicks playing footy, it’s just the fact that they haven’t really had the opportunity to see it yet. It used to kind of put me off a little bit when people would be like, and especially on the Footy Show and stuff, when Joey and Freddy would be like, “Oh, you girls actually play so well and you’re so tough”. On one side of things it’s tough to hear that constantly because we’ve grown up being footy heads, being involved in the game, and it’s kind of like, well yeah, of course we can play footy, we love it just as much as you, and girls have just as much skill as the boys do. But then on the other side of things, it’s purely because people haven’t seen women’s rugby league yet. So the fact that Harvey Norman have got on board, and hopefully to get a bit of media hype around the Women’s World Cup – more people in the audience that get to see and watch those games, I have no doubt it’ll encourage more sponsors and people to get involved in the game.
We heard you started a girl’s team at the school you teach at…
Yeah, I started our first girl’s footy team this year. I got the principal to tick off on it, and our school kind of got behind the girls. They made the state final. It’s awesome.