This season promises to be make or break for Papua New Guinea’s first national women’s rugby league team. Proud, strong and hopeful, these women have overcome more challenges than most to play their much-loved rugby league. Told through an ensemble set of characters, Power Marys follows the team through stressful selection, arduous training with a fly-in-fly-out Australian coaching mentor, and distinct personal struggles to their first Rugby League World Cup in Australia. It also explores how women playing PNG’s male-dominated, national sport in the public eye for the first time is changing mindsets in a country where the status of women is one of the most troubling in the world.
PNG lies just 10 kilometres from Australia, but it could scarcely be more different. Despite pockets of rapid modernisation, it is a country dominated by staunchly traditional culture and, in many communities, a society built around the repression of women. PNG has huge rates of gender-based violence – the United Nations estimates that 50 per cent of women in in PNG will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime and the rates of domestic violence are amongst the highest in the world.
After 40 years of independence, PNG remains divided by tribal mentalities and more than 800 different languages. But there is one thing that unites almost all of its 8 million citizens – an obsession with the sport of rugby league. In 2017, PNG will co-host the Men’s Rugby League World Cup for the first time, and while its well-known male players are expected to attract most of the limelight, PNG’s top female players will make their debut in the concurrent Women’s Rugby League World Cup in Sydney.
But this journey is not just about winning on the field. Off the field, the team’s hope is that their world cup debut will change mindsets about women in PNG – why they deserve respect, what they are capable of, and what role they can play in their country’s future.
Power Marys will follow a vibrant group of female rugby league players from the cities, highlands, islands and jungles of PNG who are striving to be selected in the world cup squad and travel to Australia for the tournament (for many of them, their first trip outside of PNG).
Each character has a distinct story and personal challenges. For team captain Cathy, this is a chance to return to the field after having a baby and make good on the promise she put aside while her son was an infant, and fulfil a lifelong dream. For Dela, a survivor of one of Port Moresby’s most notorious settlements, the world cup quest is a chance to put her previous struggles behind her and inspire others to make something of their lives. Australia-based coaching mentor David wants to empower PNG women through sport, but he is forced to confront his own personal demons as he tries to transform this group of talented yet inexperienced players into a streamlined international team.
Like many Papua New Guineans, these world cup hopefuls have grown up watching rugby league but are the first women in their family to play it. Many have dreams beyond sport, including finishing their education and starting careers. Playing in the world cup is the chance of a lifetime to achieve their dreams, and inspire other women to do the same.
Cathy is a trailblazer, both in her sporting achievements as one of PNG’s top female rugby league players and as an advocate for women’s issues. A confident, straight-talking leader, she is admired by her teammates. Coming from the troubled Enga province in the highlands, her life crosses the divide between PNG’s persisting traditions and the visions of today’s younger generation. Her father has six wives. But Cathy wants a different path for herself. Cathy’s exceptional talent led to her being named female player of the year in the Port Moresby Rugby League in 2011. In 2013 she captained a new women’s team and in 2014 she broke another barrier when she began coaching men’s teams - the only woman in PNG to do so.
Born and raised in PNG, Amelia moved to Australia with her family as a teenager. Now residing in Queensland, she has chosen to represent her new home country, Australia, in the world cup. When Amelia travels to PNG she is still welcomed with open arms and celebrated as a successful local athlete, despite having chosen to play for the Jillaroos. However, lining up against her PNG ‘sisters’ in the world cup will present an added emotional chal¬lenge for Amelia, as she reflects on the opportunities Australia has given her and the struggles still faced by her counterparts in PNG.
Rutha is a pioneer of women’s rugby league in PNG, following in the footsteps of her mother and aunt who were among the country’s first female players. In 2011, the famous Paga Panthers rugby league club of Port Moresby launched its women’s team – with Rutha as the inaugural captain. Her first year was a stunning success as she led the side to its first premiership. Rutha has been breaking other stereotypes in her life as a fly-in-fly-out safety officer in mining, another traditionally male dominated workplace, and as a personal trainer to some of PNG’s top male rugby league players. Rutha is a great inspiration to many female rugby league players in PNG, including Cathy Neap.
David Westley achieved some of rugby league’s highest honours as a player and has volunteered to help the PNG women’s team prepare for their first world cup. Born in PNG, David moved to Australia with his family at a young age, where he began playing rugby league. He won a premiership with Canberra Raiders in 1994 and represented his country at the 1995 World Cup before injury brought a premature end to his career. Now based in Cairns, he works as a coach and mentor and travels to PNG regularly to educate local coaches and assist the PNG women’s team in their world cup preparations.
Having struggled with the highs and lows of representative sport himself, he will be forced to confront his own challenging past as he supports the team on their journey to the world cup.
Dela lives in one of the most dangerous suburbs in the capital. Until she discovered rugby league, she described herself as a ‘typical settlement girl – drinking, taking drugs, not working, and getting into fights’. Dela was inspired by her brothers to take up the sport, and the discipline required to train and play has led her to a new path in life. She now captains the Butterflies rugby league team in Port Moresby, is one of the city’s best-known female players, and has become a role model in her troubled community. Dela still struggles with the legacy of her earlier life, but rugby league and the support of her teammates and family have given her the tools to change things. The world cup will be her biggest challenge yet, but making the squad could be the final catalyst she needs to transform her life.