Cadbury recently launched their women in sport initiative, which saw NRLW star Jess Sergis become an ambassador and modern day role model to young girls.
Though the St George Illawarra Dragons may have not taken home the win against the Warriors in their final round of NRLW, Jess Sergis’ smile was unwavering when the final whistle blew. A wrestle for the ball with Karina Brown quickly turned into a big embrace when it was all over, and no matter what sport you follow, it could not have been clearer that Jess is all class.
This did not come as a surprise – I was lucky enough to speak to the star centre the day before her final match, and she brought with her the same positivity that had shone on the pitch.
“I think we’re just going to try and really enjoy it, the NRLW comes at the end of the year for us so for this to be our last training session and our last game for the year, I think we’re just going to really soak it in, play football and have fun! I know it’s going to be a great game to watch. Neither of us have won a game yet so it’s going to be exciting, I’m excited. It should be good but it’s football, people win and people lose so you’ve just got to take it on the chin. I’m going to give it all I’ve got, it’s my last game for the year so watch out!”
To this, I tell her that I wouldn’t expect any less – Jess has been a breakout star over the last three years, representing both New South Wales and Australia in rugby league. She was part of the inaugural NRLW competition and has continued to play incredible rugby, resulting in her receiving both the Dally M Women’s Player of the Year award and the Golden Boot (best international player) in 2019. When Jess says she’s going to give it all she’s got, you know she really means it.
Which is why it is so hard to imagine a time where rugby league stopped being her sport.
Jess had played with the boys since the age of five, describing herself as a rambunctious kid with a close relationship to her dad. He was an avid rugby league fan and the two bonded over the sport for as long as Jess can remember.
“I was definitely the tomboy of the family, always playing with the boys at school, didn’t want to do my homework, just wanted to play sport, kind of the naughty, silly, crazy kid.”
But when she hit the age of twelve, her gender became a barrier.
“It just got to a point where our (female) bodies are completely different to male bodies and it got challenging in that sense. I was getting injured, it really wasn’t enjoyable for me back then, so I think it made it a little easier for me to realise okay, I’ve got to stop playing because I can’t really keep up with that, I’m getting hurt. Realising then I wasn’t able to play anymore sucked, just because I am a female and I always said to my mum and dad ‘why couldn’t I have been born a boy, it’s not fair.’ So yeah, it was disappointing because we are so involved in rugby league, to see my brother continue to play and to go watch the men play on the weekends. I loved it and I was happy to support them but I did wish I was out there.”
Of course, we already know that this story has a happy ending. Jess kept playing an array of different ball sports, keeping her skills sharp and her fitness up (she even mentions a brief stint with Aussie rules football, but laughs as she tells me it didn’t feel ‘aggressive’ enough for her at the time). When she was 18, she found her way back to rugby league through the Cronulla women’s side, and the rest is history. I ask her if she had any female role models that inspired her back then, anyone that helped her realise rugby league was still an option.
“When I was younger it was more male role models, just because I was more involved in male-orientated sports, but getting older and in my teenage years realising that girls were actually playing rugby league and there were competitions out there, I think Ruan Sims was a big one for me. She’s an awesome, awesome woman, on and off that field. For my first year I was playing for Cronulla and she was part of the Cronulla side and I was crapping myself a little bit because she was the pinnacle for women’s rugby league when I was coming through. I remember I was there, and she was awesome, she made me feel so comfortable, but my coach back then, he said ‘okay, seeing as you’re new Jess, you’ve got to run at Ruan and she’s got to tackle you’. I was a bit in shock, like ‘uhhh okay’, and I finally got myself up to do it and he was like ‘nah I’m just pulling your leg, it’s fine’. Could you imagine?!”
I can’t help but think about how her admiration for Ruan Sims has (in many ways) come full circle. Not only is Jess now a household name amongst rugby fans, but has recently been announced as an ambassador for Cadbury’s Women in Sport Initiative, a campaign aiming to shine a light on powerhouse female athletes and give young girls role models from different sporting codes. The way Jess saw someone like Ruan Sims is the way so many young girls will see her; a female player carving the way for future generations, a real-life example of what is possible when it can so often feel like sport is a secret club with a passcode that is impossible to crack.
“The initiative itself, it shows everyone how much women don’t continue on with sport. When I saw the stat that one in two girls drop out from the age of fifteen, I was blown away by that. But when you actually think about it, it’s true, and I think I thought about myself in school and my friends, how they would kind of put away their sport to focus on their career when really, our sport can be our career. To be a part of Cadbury itself, I think it’s awesome and they’re doing such a great thing to get that out there and support us in our women’s games. They’re a massive company, to have their support really shows that us women, we can really strive and do what we want in our careers as well.”
When I ask Jess what she would like to see for the future of women’s sport, the answer comes to her naturally.
“For all of us codes to become full time athletes. I know we’re getting there with the coverage that all of us codes are getting now and the pathways little girls and little boys have to watch us, it’s getting better and better, but I think just the overall goal for all of it is to be full time, we love it, we don’t want to work our other full time jobs and come back to sport, we just want to really focus on that. I really do think one day it’s going to get there and we’re just the pathway to continue that along, but I think the overall goal is to be role models for these little girls and show them that they can do it and this can be a fulltime thing for them as well.”
If you have ever seen Jess play, you know she oozes resilience. The best example of this was during round one of the current season, where she fought through a twisted ankle with some strapping tape and sheer determination. She bounces back from big fends and tackles like they didn’t even happen, never letting a moment or the scoreboard get in her head. It’s fitting that someone with her tenacity managed to find their way back to a sport that once felt like a dead end, only to rise to the top in the most spectacular (and humble) way. It’s even more fitting that she is now the face for women’s rugby league, inspiring future generations of young girls refusing to be held back because of gender.
As far as role models go, you can’t get much better than Jess.