Manu Vatuvei voted Favourite Son

Manu Vatuvei is both feared and respected as ‘The Beast' on the field but the giant Vodafone Warriors winger's golden smile and compassion off the field have won him the hearts of rugby league fans who have voted him the game's Harvey Norman Women in League ‘Favourite Son'.

Vatuvei has been honoured for his "efforts and attitude that inspire women to be part of the rugby league family at all levels".

The award was presented to Vatuvei at today's launch of the 2014 Harvey Norman Women in League Round in front of more than 230 guests at Sydney's Museum of Contemporary Art.

"I am proud and humbled to receive this. It's an awesome award, not just for me personally but most of all for my club and my family," said Vatuvei.

"I'd like to recognise and thank all our members, fans, team-mates, friends and family for their unbelievable support in voting for me.

"I also want to make special mention of my mother who has played such an important part in my life as well as (my wife) Jen and our girls who are always there to support me."

Vatuvei was running third late last week but surged into a clear lead on the back of a fantastic response to the Vodafone Warriors' ‘Vote for Vatuvei' social media campaign.

A photo posted by Vatuvei with his mother Tangikina in the lead-up to the Mother's Day match against Canberra on Saturday was a big vote catcher.

While paying credit to his mother, wife and daughters today, Vatuvei has always singled out his father Siosifa for special attention, too. He was ever-present at Mount Smart Stadium in Vatuvei's development squad years, bringing his son to training and waiting in the car park to take him home afterwards.

At today's launch of the Women in League Round, NRL chief executive Dave Smith said his vision is to ensure women and girls feel included and engaged in every aspect of the rugby league family.

He said Vatuvei embodied this vision through his inspirational work on and off the field.

Vatuvei's wife Jen was at the announcement which sees him join a prestigious list of previous ‘Favourite Son' award winners: Hazem El Masri (2009), Nathan Hindmarsh (2010), today's MC Petero Civoniceva (2011), Luke Burt (2012) and Anthony Minichiello (2013).

In an NRL career now in its 11th season, Vatuvei plays his 180th game when he lines up against the Bulldogs in Hamilton on Sunday. With 125 career tries he has been the Warriors' top or equal top try-scorer each of the last seven seasons and he is leading the charge again this year with seven in eight games. He has also played 24 Tests for New Zealand and two All Stars matches.

Vatuvei's award is the first major NRL accolade for the Vodafone Warriors in several years. Ruben Wiki won the Ken Stephen Medal in 2007, the Vodafone Warriors were named the One Community Club of the Year in 2008 and community manager Petrece Kesha won the Women in League award in 2009.

Smith said the role of women in the game had grown substantially in the past 12 months - but there was still a long way to go.

"We need to change the entire culture within the game to the point where it is normal to have a female in any role," he said.

"So, in future, we will see more mums and daughters participation, not just as players but as game officials, coaches and club administrators.

"We must have more women at the top if we are to deliver effective leadership.

"And we must have more women in every other aspect of our game if we are to have wider appeal - that means Boards, senior executive roles, in our clubs and State Leagues.

"And that will be a focus of the NRL over the next 12 months."

He announced there will be a women's Test between Australia and New Zealand as the curtain-raiser to the Australia-Toa Samoa Four Nations clash in Wollongong in November.

"This will be a re-match between the best two women's teams in the world … the teams which fought out the World Cup final last year," he said.

Player registrations have increased 66 per cent in the past 12 months (from 4741 in 2013 to 7216 in 2014). And women's involvement at all levels continues to grow from grassroots, where 40 per cent of club positions are held by women, to the NRL.

At the same time, the profile of women in rugby league has also continued to rise, with significant milestones in the past 12 months including appointments such as Raelene Castle as Bulldogs CEO, Corene Strauss as Men of League CEO, Rebecca Frizelle as Titans Board Chair and Linda Burney as ARL Indigenous Council Chair; the Jillaroos winning the Women's Rugby League World Cup for the first time, and the recent women's match played as a curtain-raiser to the Test; and Kasey Badger and Belinda Sleeman becoming the first female referees to be included in the full-time elite match officials squad.

World Cup-winning Jillaroos Sam Hammond and Ruan Sims were among the guests at today's lunch to celebrate the role of women in the game, along with Rugby League Ambassadors Nathan Hindmarsh, Nathan Cayless and Mario Fenech, Harvey Norman Chief Executive Katie Page, Bulldogs CEO Raelene Castle, Men of League CEO Corene Strauss, Broncos Director Katie Bickford, NRL's Welfare and Education Committee Professor Catharine Lumby, Referee Kasey Badger and Junior Rugby League representatives.

NRL clubs and grassroots clubs are supporting the Women in League Round initiative through various activities, including special edition purple socks, pink jerseys and fundraising events for a variety of charities.

For more information on the Harvey Norman Women in League Round please visit:www.nrl.com/womeninleague

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