Warilla High PE teacher Karra-Lee Nolan chosen to officiate the WNRL grand final

Warilla High PE teacher Karra-Lee Nolan all ready for Sunday's clash. Pictures: Robert Peet
Warilla High PE teacher Karra-Lee Nolan all ready for Sunday's clash. Pictures: Robert Peet

Eight years of hard work have paid off for Karra-Lee Nolan who's been chosen to officiate the WNRL grand final.

Running around on the local cow paddock is what she knows, but pretty quickly 25-year-old Karra-Lee Nolan has had to adapt to the bright lights and television cameras.

The down-to-earth Warilla High PE teacher is flying the flag for the Illawarra this weekend, earning herself the much sought-after gig of linesman at ANZ Stadium in front of thousands of feisty footy fans.

Nolan will be officiating the women's grand final. Her ultimate goal is to blow her whistle at the men's big game.

"I couldn't believe it when I found out I got the game," she told the Mercury this week.

Karra-Lee Nolan in action at Leichardt Oval in the Dragon's clash with the Roosters. Picture: Kerrie Lawrence

Karra-Lee Nolan in action at Leichardt Oval in the Dragon's clash with the Roosters. Picture: Kerrie Lawrence

"I was blown away, I didn't expect it. Not because I wasn't good enough or couldn't do the job, but I just didn't expect it.

"It wasn't that long ago I was running around at local footy.

"It's times like today where the work over the last eight years and finding out I've been appointed to the grand final is a dream come true."

Nolan has shot to the top of her game quickly.

Last year she became the first ever female to referee a country first grade grand final.

From there, she's refereed Country Rugby League under 23's final, the NRL national women's championship, Pacific Games Samoa and the Rugby League 9's final.

Last week she was at Leichardt Oval for the game that saw the St George Illawarra Dragons win their way into Sunday's main game by beating the Sydney Roosters.

To perform at such an elite level Nolan herself is a top-class athlete with a grueling training schedule.

In the NSW high performance squad she works skills and conditioning on Mondays and Wednesdays then Tuesday and Fridays are weights training and off-leg conditioning sessions.

Nolan, with F45 Shellharbour studio manager Kerrie Lawrence. Picture: Robert Peet

Nolan, with F45 Shellharbour studio manager Kerrie Lawrence. Picture: Robert Peet

She has games on Saturday and Sunday and then recovery and rehabilitation work is blended in.

"It's a fairly hectic schedule," Nolan says, adding she still finds time for Shellharbour F45 - her local gym that she credits with getting her "where she needs to be" as far as fitness, strength and mindset.

Trainer and studio manager Kerrie Lawrence said Nolan had made huge gains in her fitness since joining the gym.

"We always knew she needed to be agile, but also have the endurance to sustain the whole hour of a footy game," Lawrence said.

"Her natural athleticism combined with the type of training we do here has made her a better referee and made her more confident in herself," she said.

"She now knows she has the stamina to not just last the game but to make incredible decisions under fatigue."

Nolan says nothing is left to chance.

Karra-Lee, second front left, was a member of the state relay championship team in 2004. Picture: Wayne Venables

Karra-Lee, second front left, was a member of the state relay championship team in 2004. Picture: Wayne Venables

At the high performance centre, her sessions can involve intense rower sprints, then - while at the height of her fatigue and with a seconds notice - she's thrown brain teasers and forced to answer quickly.

It's a test to see how her brain works when her body is being pushed to the limits physically.

"It's really grueling, but it makes you focus when you're exhausted, makes you ready for the pressures of a game," Nolan said.

And the fans sure let her know when they're not happy with one of those split-second decisions.

Footy fans aren't backwards in coming forward when they don't like the sound of the whistle, or the raising of the sideline flag.

But Nolan isn't fazed.

"People are passionate and often it occurs for the decision or the job we do," she said.

Don't stop: Karra-Lee Nolan in training.

Don't stop: Karra-Lee Nolan in training.

"But more often than not I don't hear anything. I get so involved in the game, the players are yelling plays or shifting their movements and then the crowds cheering.

"I don't hear much. It's white noise if anything. I do what I do because I love it and don't get caught up on what people think."

The decision to focus on being a referee, rather than in the thick of the game herself, wasn't an easy one.

"I knew I loved refereeing but there was part of me that often wondered did I give away something special?

"Was it the right decision I made. But getting this grand final, getting that call, days like that make me know it's the right one."

At 24, Nolan mad history when she became the first-ever female to referee a Country Rugby League First Grade Group Grand Final.

"Being a female I never thought that it could be possible, but times have changed and here I am about to run out on Sunday," she said at the time.

Nolan was a national hurdler in athletics and played state touch football.

A knee reconstruction at the age of 15 set her back so she opted for a change, a new challenge and something that would put a little money in her pocket.

Her dad encouraged her to be a referee.

"My dad was a referee for 15 years prior to me starting and he helped me learn the basics and tested me with questions."

So now in the big league, any nerves?

"To be honest initially I did and there's always some sort of nerves for the bigger games of the season. But I try to turn those nerves into energy and drive to pump myself up for the job at hand."

Nolan has the support of her mum and dad and other family members who attend every game she officiates. "They come watch, they're extremely supportive, I have a lot of support around me so I'm very lucky," she said.

Now she has big plans for her future.

"I want to seek out and encourage others to become involved in refereeing and help give back to the sport that has given so much to me already," she said.

"I aim to work towards developing my own skill set both on and off the field and hopefully one day reach the the pinnacle and that is refereeing in the NRL."

For now, she's a little fish in a big pond.

"I'm learning off the more experienced referees and working towards developing my skill set as an official," she said. "Every year gets harder and harder, but I continue to grow in maturity as an athlete but also a human being."

This story Warilla High PE teacher chosen to officiate the WNRL grand final first appeared on Illawarra Mercury.