It was once billed as a social way for footballers to keep fit over the off-season, but now OzTag is proving to be the perfect player development pool for women’s rugby league.
Developed in 1992, OzTag is a modified version of rugby league where defenders are tasked with removing tags instead of tackling.
As a result, games are fast, frenetic and highly skilled, especially at the elite level.
A focus is placed on speed, agility, tactical decisions and swift passing instead of brute strength, giving smaller players the chance to shine.
The sport is becoming more popular every year: well over 200,000 people of all ages play OzTag in Australia, many of them female.
An inclusive culture and a strict no contact policy have made it a great stepping stone into rugby league for women, allowing them to learn the fundamentals of the sport in a safe environment.
Prior to the establishment of women’s competitions in recent years, OzTag - along with touch football - was one of the only ways for females to play a form of rugby league, albeit altered.
Many prominent OzTag players have crossed over to rugby league in recent times, including Jillaroos five-eighth Allana Ferguson.
Ferguson was forced to stop playing rugby league at 12 years old, so took up OzTag because “it was the most similar” to the sport she grew up loving.
She went on to represent Australia in OzTag – the youngest to do so at just 15 – before she donned the green and gold in rugby league.
An OzTag teammate and close friend of Ferguson’s, 19-year-old Tanika O’Brien, also starred after trading tagging for tackling.
O’Brien, an accomplished competitor who has played at the state and national OzTag titles, developed a love for league and made the transition in 2016 alongside many of her teammates.
She says the unity she experienced in the non-contact game was a big factor in her decision to join her friends in rugby league.
“OzTag is a team sport which encourages sportsmanship and mateship; key reasons I made the move from OzTag to rugby league,” she said.
O’Brien said having those previous teammates and close friends with her on the journey made it easier.
“Joining the new sport with familiar players and friends made the leap less of a jump and more exciting.”
She completed that jump with ease, quickly proving to be a footballing natural.
Playing alongside a host of OzTag alumni for her local side Cronulla-Caringbah, O’Brien was a standout and earned herself selection in the first-ever Women’s NRL match for the Cronulla Sharks against the St. George Illawarra Dragons just months after her debut game.
Big-name players like Ferguson, Ruan Sims, Sammy Bremner, Corban McGregor, Maddie Studdon and Kezie Apps also participated in the historic match, which was eventually won 16-12 by the Sharks.
O’Brien credited OzTag with providing the foundations that allowed her to slot in seamlessly amongst such talent.
“OzTag is essentially a non-physical version of league, [so it] enables women to try out the basics of the game in a safer and less intimidating environment while learning the fundamental skills a rugby league player needs,” she said.
“[It’s] definitely a game that acts as a pathway for women to play rugby league.”
As more opportunities are presented for promising youngsters to progress through the junior representative ranks via competitions like the under-18s Tarsha Gale Cup, be prepared to see an influx of gifted OzTag players emulate Ferguson, O’Brien and many other current stars by making the shift from velcro tags to shoulder pads.