Belinda Sharpe reflects on her journey into league history
A YOUNG Belinda Sharpe enjoyed nothing more than settling in on the lounge with dad Alastair for their weekly dose of footy.
"Him and I were both such big fans of the game and used to sit down every weekend and watch the games and talk about rugby league," she remembers.
"It was a passion that we shared which was really nice for me... some special memories with my dad."
Growing up in Rockhampton, rugby league heartland, also helped fuel her love of the game.
"It's such a big sport there and such a popular sport so I was certainly surrounded by rugby league growing up.
"I guess I just wanted to find an opportunity or a way to be involved in the game and refereeing ended up being that avenue."
It was an avenue that set her on the road to a place in history last week when she became the first female referee to officiate an NRL game - Brisbane's 28-6 win over Canterbury at Suncorp Stadium.
Today she will be in the middle again, in the Round 19 fixture between the Gold Coast Titans and the Brisbane Broncos at Cbus Super Stadium.
Belinda spoke to The Morning Bulletin this week about the incredible achievement, which thrust her into the media spotlight.
She was on news bulletins, breakfast shows, sports programs and even had a guest appearance on Network 10's Have You Been Paying Attention.
"I think it's very unusual for a referee to receive so much attention, both before and after a game," she said.
"The support I've received has been fantastic, and the well wishes before the game certainly meant a lot to me.
"I think, while it's unusual, the fact it has been so supportive has been a really positive thing for, not just myself, but the rest of the referees in the NRL squad.
"If my appointment can encourage more people to become involved as referees, male or female, then that's a positive thing for the game."
Belinda said she felt a mix of emotions before her historic appearance last Thursday, and some special gestures on the day made it even more memorable.
Alastair presented her with her referees jersey, and her mum Cathy and two older sisters Angela and Tanya were also there for the big game.
Head referee Ben Cummins asked her to do the coin toss before the game and to run the match ball out to the middle, duties traditionally carried out by the head referee.
"I was certainly excited and looking forward to the game but probably nervous at the same time, but I just tried to treat it like any other week," Belinda said.
"It was a great game to be a part of. The players certainly contributed to that in the way they played the game.
"That step up to the next level was, I suppose, everything I expected it was going to be.
"It was certainly a faster game, but it was really enjoyable.
"It was a thrill to be part of it... it was a goal that I'd been working towards for a long time."
It has been a more than decade-long journey for Belinda, who wanted to play rugby league as a teenager.
She saw an opportunity in the schoolgirls competition during Year 10 at Glenmore High, where she went on to be school captain.
"I talked to Dad about wanting to play and he wasn't keen on the idea. He encouraged me to just continue playing touch football, which I was doing at that time," she said.
"When I said to him I was interested in refereeing rugby league he was really supportive of that and has been ever since.
"I was playing touch so many nights a week so naturally I was just filling in and helping referee games as well.
"A family friend actually suggested that there was a shortage of rugby league referees and because I refereed touch and I loved rugby league had I ever considered trying rugby league refereeing.
"I gave it some thought and decided I would like to give it a go. I contacted the Rockhampton Referees Association and did my first course and went from there."
It was at that first course that Belinda met Steve Hamilton, a Central Queensland referee development officer for the NRL.
"He put me through my first course and was at my very first game and at many, many games after that.
"He certainly had a big influence on my career and he still does.
"I still speak to him regularly, bounce things off him and ask for his advice on things."
Belinda was 17 when she refereed her first game - an under-8s fixture at Gracemere.
"I remember going out on the field and I'd only sat my course the week before so it was a foreign place for me to be in terms of a rugby league game.
"Obviously I'd refereed some sports before, but not rugby league, so I was a little bit nervous about where to stand and what to do and what to say.
"After getting a few games under my belt I started to pick it up.
"I think I caught the bug pretty early on and decided I wanted to see how far I could go."
Belinda spent some time in the under-8s and then progressed through the ranks.
"Rockhampton has a fantastic schoolboys competition so that was a great place for me to learn a lot about refereeing and a lot about the game," she said.
"I went through the junior competitions, the schoolboys competition and started running touch lines in the senior competitions as well before I made the move to Brisbane at the start of 2009.
"I told my mother (the move) was work-related but the truth is I wanted to see how far I could progress my refereeing career.
"I knew I needed to move to Brisbane to take that next step and to try and progress into being a member of the QRL referees academy."
Belinda was brought into the academy after four months and started refereeing games across Southeast Queensland.
In the move south, she also met her future husband Clayton Sharpe, whom she married in January this year.
Clayton holds the record for the most ISC games as a referee and has refereed five ISC grand finals.
"I've learnt a lot from him over the years," Belinda said.
"He's also a touch judge in the NRL, and has done over 100 games there.
"I'm lucky that he has a very good understanding of what it takes to get to this level, and (he's) not only understanding of that but also very supportive of that as well."
At the end of 2013, Belinda was offered a part-time contract with the NRL and in 2014 became the first female touch judge appointed to an NRL game.
She started refereeing Intrust Super Cup games in 2015 and two years later was a touch judge in four Tests during the World Cup.
She was handed the whistle for a Broncos-Wynnum Manly trial game in February this year and on receiving a full-time NRL contract in May made the move to Sydney.
Belinda said there had been a lot of "fantastic experiences" along the way.
"As a referee, the skills you develop and the things you learn are all based on experiences that you have in games, and in different competitions and refereeing different teams and different players.
"I think it's important to have those experiences, however long that takes, to make sure you're ready when the opportunity comes to you to take that next step.
"I don't know that I ever thought I'm ready now. I think it was just important to make sure I took something from every experience and every game to make sure I was improving all the time."
Belinda is excited to officiate her second NRL game today, again alongside Cummins.
"Having that first taste, I can't wait to get back out there on the field and get many more games under my belt hopefully," she said.
"Motivation levels are certainly very high at the moment and I'm grateful for the opportunity that I had last week and can't wait to build on that now."