Maggie Moloney is not a household name today, but 101 years ago she was.
- Maggie Moloney was the star of the first ever official women’s rugby league match in 1921
- The game, which was backed by the legendary Dally Messenger, drew a crowd of close to 30,000 people
- A new street mural in Redfern pays tribute to Moloney and her story
Australia’s first female rugby league star, at only 15 years of age, was described as the ‘female Dally Messenger’ when she was the center of one of Australia’s biggest news stories of 1921.
In front of 30,000 people at the Sydney Showground the teenager from Redfern scored four tries as the Metropolitan Blues beat the Sydney Reds 21-11 in the world’s first public women’s rugby league match.
Her career was short-lived as the women’s competition faced a level of administrative skulduggery faced by many women who wanted to play sport in the same way as their male counterparts.
The men’s teams at the time were to play the curtain raiser to the women’s match but were prevented from doing so by NSW Rugby League (NSWRL) officials, who had originally voted to support the match and a women’s competition.
The ban was defied by the greatest rugby league player of the time, Dally Messenger, who took the opportunity to launch his own rugby league ball at half-time in the women’s contest.
Front page headlines at the time were about the partition of Ireland, land disputes between China and Japan, and naval disarmament talks between Pacific nations.
But among the big geo-political stories were reports of the women’s rugby league game, although Maggie’s family name was misspelled in all of them.
The Sun led with ‘Girl Football Star – Only 15 Years Old, Modest Maggie Maloney’.
The Sunday Times story was headlined, ‘Women at Football, Speedy Miss Maloney’.
The Daily Telegraph went with, ‘Maggie’s Triumph, The Rugby Girl, an Attractive Game’.
From an old black and white photo Moloney’s story has been brought back to life by street artist Sharon Billinge and Redfern Rugby League historian Katherine Haines.
The painting on the back wall of Redfern’s St Vincent de Paul Community Support Center looms over the laneway where Moloney practiced kicking with other neighborhood kids, and her brother Bryan who played for the Rabbitohs.
The laneway also has a clear view to her family home.
“She played before 30,000 people at the agricultural showgrounds,” Haines told The Ticket.
“She really stood out … she was just loved by the crowds because she was such an exciting player.”
The showgrounds then were next door to the SCG where Fox Studios now stands. The match was promoted by the Mick Simmons sports store and billed as ‘The Event of the Year’.
In an attempt to deter crowds from watching the women’s game, the NSWRL staged its own exhibition match next door with a group of school girls who’d never played the game. It drew only around 2,000 spectators.
They would have heard the chanting of ‘Maggie, Maggie’ blowing downwind from the much bigger crowd who had all paid to see the game played by teams that had been training every Friday afternoon since mid-June.
Men were not allowed to watch training, but for a small fee other women could. Two police officers guarded the training ground where up to 100 women took part in the weekly ball skills and kicking practice. A portion of the gate takings on game day was paid to the players.
Artist Sharon Billinge said the reaction to the mural had been “amazing”.
“Maggie’s granddaughter came and she was in tears when she saw it, which was just lovely,” she said.
“It’s obviously a story piece … so people walking past want to ask about the story, they’ve looked her up online and they really connect to her because she lived just 50 meters away.”
With only a scratchy old photo to paint from, Billinge described the challenge as “very tricky”.
“As a mural artist you get thrown these curve balls all the time. We wanted it to be really big, to be iconic, so it was a tricky thing to do but I think we managed to pull it off.”
At the bottom corner of the mural, underneath the goal posts, sits a Dally M rugby league ball, deliberately included, Haines said, to recognize the men who supported women playing rugby league back then.
Haines also believes NRLW player of the year, currently awarded a Dally M Medal the same as their male counterparts, should be given a medal named after their own legendary player.
“She is the equivalent of Dally M in the women’s game, she was the first star of the women’s game, she was the highest points scorer, but most of all she was the most exciting player on the field which is what Messenger was like, Haines said.
“It gave the crowd such joy to watch her play and I think that’s what really links Maggie Moloney and Dally Messenger.
“If this mural can help get the story out to the women playing the game, and all the people that are really enjoying it at the moment, that you actually have your own Dally Messenger, her name is Maggie Moloney, then that would be a wonderful thing.”
The reviving of the Maggie Moloney story is testament to a woman of strength and resilience, according to her granddaughter Karen Heard.
“Our grandmother did a great deal … she paved the way for other women not recognized immediately but certainly now,” she told The Ticket.
Asked what her grandmother would think of the suggestion the Dally M medal for women should be renamed in her honour, Heard said she’d say, “Really? Is that necessary? Do we need a Maggie M?”
“And then we’d be pushing here to have it,” Heard said.
The ABC has approached the NRL to see if it would consider renaming the player of the year award for women in honor of Maggie Moloney.