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'Women are not a mystery anymore in rugby league'

In the latest instalment a 10-part series on some of women’s rugby league’s main trailblazers for Harvey Norman Women In League Round, Alicia Newton tells the tale of Jillaroos wellbeing manager Debbie Brewin.

 

This week marks 20 years since Sydney hosted the 2000 Olympic Games but for Debbie Brewin, working in the precinct at the time, her eyes were on a far different prize.

As the world came together to celebrate one of the greatest sporting events seen, Brewin was a couple of streets away near ANZ Stadium beginning a journey in rugby league.

Brewin has held various roles in the game since walking away from teaching in 1999.

Labelled a "mum" to most who know her, Brewin's background of working in schools was the catalyst to becoming a vital key in developing the code as nationals schools manager.

"I got a phone call when the Super League war happened and the participation in rugby league at a grassroots level was terrible," Brewin told NRL.com.

"They were looking for a woman who had a teaching background and I was an assistant principal and a touch footballer who loved rugby league.

Wests Tigers education and welfare manager Debbie Brewin.
Wests Tigers education and welfare manager Debbie Brewin. ©www.weststigers.com.au

"My first mission was to employ as many women as I could to go and be development officers in schools.

"We started with 23 people and 19 of those were women. When I finished, there was 123. The boys had an amazing pathway but the girls didn't and schools weren't really catering to rugby league.

"My great feeling of making everything equal was paramount and there has been a massive change in attitude over time since then.

"It's no longer something that's frowned upon but going back 20 years ago and the battles I used to have because I employed a female development officer instead of a male was incredible.

"Women are not a mystery anymore in rugby league."

Brewin has switched her primary focus to welfare over the past decade with leading roles at the Wests Tigers and Australian Jillaroos.

Former Jillaroo Karyn Murphy said Brewin was like a mother on tour who remains crucial to the current Australian squad for her understanding of the differences that lie with part-time and semi-professional athletes.

"She picks up on things before they happen, very experienced and reliable," Murphy said.

"I met her through women's footy, Deb was on a lot of our tours and one that stands out for me was a trip to Samoa in 2011 where a lot of things happened but she stayed calm.

Debbie Brewin (bottom right) celebrates with the Jillaroos after last year's Test win over New Zealand in Wollongong.
Debbie Brewin (bottom right) celebrates with the Jillaroos after last year's Test win over New Zealand in Wollongong. ©Gregg Porteous/NRL Photos

"She gives up all the time in the world and is so passionate about rugby league and cares about everyone.

"If the girls have got anything going on she's there and is crucial to our women's program."

Brewin is flattered by the compliments that come her way but plays down herself as "this nurturing amazing person".

"I like to think I've got some strategy in me," she laughs.

"But I genuinely care about people and rugby league. I get very loyal and disappointed when people stereotype those in the game because I know the same people are the best I've ever met.

"I'm a champion for the underdog so to get people playing and to see women move from compared to 15 years ago there's been some enormous changes."

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Brewin will end a five-month stint inside the Wests Tigers bubble under Michael Maguire in a fortnight but says this year has been as crucial as ever to focus on an NRL player's well-being.

"Those players are as vulnerable as anyone else in society but probably more so now," she said.

"They're put on these pedestals but if they can't catch a ball one game everyone hates them.

She picks up on things before they happen.

Karyn Murphy

"But underneath a football player they're still a person with a heart and soul and determination, grit – all those qualities of a good person.

"They've got to learn to ride that wave and it's hard because they get this extra scrutiny on them all the time.

"Add in the bubble too which has been difficult for everyone, but I've also got to say Madge and the team have handled it really well.

"It must be hurting some more than others but Madge is very supportive of the rules and adhering to them while he also really cares about the players."

Brewin has seen a change throughout her time at the club of players expressing themselves a lot more sooner in a positive for the game.

"They're certainly not as quick to come to you but once you have that trust it's there," she said.

"It's all about building relationships and I think that's where I'm fortunate – I'm an older woman, a caring woman and the thing the players know is I'm on their side 100 percent and will do what it takes to help them get through whatever it is.

"But it's not just Debbie Brewin, there are so many people who are involved in similar roles who are playing a big part in the game."