Inside story: The kiss that changed the game
IT was the kiss that put old school footy prejudices squarely in the spotlight, creating a divide between the traditionalists and the progressives. Karina Brown and Vanessa Foliaki share the inside story of the kiss that changed the game with Rikki-Lee Arnold
KARINA Brown walked up the long tunnel at North Sydney Oval alone, a surge of emotions running through her body.
She had just finished playing in the inaugural women's State of Origin.
It was June 22 this year, the 20th time Queensland and NSW had met in the annual showdown but the first year it was played under the prestigious Origin banner.
It was her second game as captain of the Maroons and her third straight loss to the women in blue.
Brown had just fronted the post-match media press conference, holding back tears as she spoke with pride about her side's 16-10 defeat.
She had gone to the sheds afterwards to find her teammates, but they were still mingling with fans and loved ones on the edge of the field.
So Brown walked back up the tunnel and saw the one person she needed most in that moment - her partner of nearly three years and an on-field opponent that day, NSW forward Vanessa Foliaki.
"I was looking for a friend," Brown says. "I walked outside and Ness was right there, which was perfect. I felt like I could finally hug her. I hadn't really had that loving interaction because we'd been apart the whole week (in their respective Origin camps).
"Both of us felt that relief to see each other. It was like, 'I can love you again now, the game is over, life goes on'. I kissed her and was just chatting to her, asking how she was feeling."
It is the kind of moment any couple would share if they had just spent a week apart or achieved an incredible career milestone like these women had.
But little did Brown and Foliaki know at the time, their kiss had been captured by photographers, was uploaded online and was going viral.
The NRL's official social media pages shared this moment with the public to show that love is love, no matter a person's sexual preference.
The reactions came in thick and fast. There were those who saw the beauty in the moment, those who took a tongue-in-cheek approach ("How can someone kiss a Queenslander?!") and, as is the way with the internet, those who could only spout negativity.
Brown discovered the image once she got back to her hotel and was lying in bed.
The Warragul-born, Gold Coast-bred 29-year-old says she was initially shocked and did not want the photo to take anything away from what the two teams had just achieved.
For Foliaki, it was a lot more personal. The pair met in 2014 in the Australian Jillaroos camp for the November Test match against New Zealand in Wollongong.
Foliaki had never been in a same-sex relationship before but there was an immediate spark with Brown. They casually dated over the next year, the best option given Brown lived in Brisbane and Foliaki was based in Sydney.
By November 2015, however, neither one could deny they had something special and they made their relationship official.
But for Foliaki - who was 22 at the time - her Tongan heritage made it difficult for her to process her feelings.
Foliaki, who was born in Auckland and moved to NSW to complete Years 11 and 12 in Australia, is the youngest of five, alongside her twin brother Mathew.
They are a tight-knit family but her decision to date another woman was not universally accepted within their community.
"I was never really into girls prior to Karina," Foliaki says. "There was something about her that attracted me to her ... She caught my attention. But for myself, it was a little difficult to understand because of my heritage. I am Tongan and in my culture (same-sex relationships) are not accepted.
"It did take me a while to work out what I was feeling towards Karina. Even up until the end of 2016 I was still on edge because my parents weren't OK with it. It was difficult for a long time but you just learn to accept it and move forward."
However, the photo of the couple's kiss was another test for Foliaki.
While many were celebrating the image as proof of how far society has come and its pivotal moment in sport, Foliaki wanted the NRL to remove it from all its social media sites.
Through all the positivity, a lot of negative comments reached the pair, as well as Foliaki's family back in NZ.
"That photo was definitely unexpected," Foliaki says.
"It was so difficult because it went viral. It got to the papers in New Zealand and my parents saw it and were really upset because of the Tongan community. People were saying my parents had failed as parents and my family copped a lot of that backlash.
"It was tough for a few weeks. I remember I asked Karina to call the NRL and ask them to take it down. I was so upset my family were getting backlash from it."
But over the past few months, both Foliaki and Brown - who have lived together in Brisbane since August 2016 - have realised the incredible impact their moment has had on the wider community.
Not only are they nominated in the sports category at the Australian LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex) Awards as "sports idols who are breaking barriers" but they have had hundreds of people reach out to share their stories and explain what the image means to them.
"Looking back on it, I'm glad they got that photo out and put it up," Foliaki says.
"There are a lot of people in the same position I was in so if they can see a picture like that and find some sort of hope from it, we're doing a good job. I've also got so many messages from people who are Pacific Islander like me. That made it easier for me to accept that the photo had spread worldwide.
"I saw my mum a couple of weeks ago and she was saying that people have since told her my parents should be so proud. She said they're going to support me whether or not the Pacific Islander community do. That was really nice to hear. It's always nice to hear."
Karina and Vanessa have played rugby league at the highest level possible - together and against each other.
As well as the media attention, the photograph garnered more than 30,000 likes across the NRL's social media accounts, with more than 4000 comments on Facebook.
There is no doubt the photo will go down in the rugby league history books as one of the iconic images in the game.
Like the photo of Wally Lewis and Mark Geyer that encapsulates the passion of Origin, or the image of Cameron Smith pulling opponent and good friend Johnathan Thurston to his feet.
NRL chief executive Todd Greenberg says the photo sums up what rugby league is about.
"When you have moments like that … young girls and boys all across the world can see that image and it forms part of their own thinking and beliefs, it's very powerful. Rugby league is very good at using its voice proudly for key issues, whether it's same-sex marriage or the work we do on mental health ... it is a fundamental pillar of what we are."
For Brown, it proves why rugby league is for everybody.
While Foliaki had a hard time revealing her true self to her family, Brown did not feel the same weight of cultural expectation when she came out to her mother, Bernadette Fitch, at age 21.
"I told my mum and she laughed," Brown says.
"She thought I was going to tell her I lost my licence. I made such a big deal of it but her reaction straight away was, 'who cares?'. She said, 'I love you, no matter what'. After that I wasn't afraid to tell anyone."
The eldest of four girls, Brown says she always had support from her loved ones, including her three sisters, her father Paul Brown, her stepdad Tim Fitch and her grandfather, Eddie Fox.
She says she was prepared to walk away from anyone who treated her differently, but she was never forced to do so. And she knew the rugby league community would be just as accepting.
"It wasn't really anything to us in that moment but we recognise now it was quite an important image," she says.
"It is a game for everyone … That's what I love about rugby league. This further strengthens that view, that no matter race or sexuality, you can play this game.
"It's iconic for me and I would be really proud to pull that (the photo) out in 10 or 20 years from now and show my children this moment and explain to them that back in our day people were only just starting to accept same-sex relationships."
Brown and Foliaki have already endured a great deal in their time together. For nine months they forked out thousands of dollars to make their long-distance relationship work.
Then when Foliaki did make the move to Brisbane, she was also dealing with a broken leg - her first major career injury.
Brown was the person who got her through that time.
Their biggest test however was on the footy field, especially in the 2016 interstate clash. NSW won for the first time that year and, while the Blues haven't been beaten since, proud Queenslander Brown admits that first year was the hardest.
"I had never played against my girlfriend before ... It was an interesting time. But that's both our personalities. We're there to do a job."
Since the photo was taken, Brown and Foliaki have achieved a great deal professionally and personally.
Together they played for the Sydney Roosters in the inaugural women's NRL competition, going all the way to grand final day.
Away from the field, they have bought a house together and bought a puppy.
"We eventually want to get married and have kids," Foliaki says. "That's the next stage."
But first comes football. The couple want to continue to make the most of the rapid growth in women's rugby league and Brown especially wants to get that State of Origin win for Queensland.
Even Foliaki is prepared for that eventuality.
"As much as I wouldn't like losing, I would love to see her win at least once as captain ... Just once though," Foliaki laughs.
THREE months after Vanessa Foliaki and Karina Brown's photo went viral, Brisbane Broncos NRLW captain Ali Brigginshaw foundherself in a similar situation.
Just moments after winning the first women's premiership, Brigginshaw went to the sidelines at ANZ Stadium in Sydney to find her partner of nine months, Kate Daly.
They shared a celebratory kiss and, like Foliaki and Brown, the moment was captured and went viral.
In both cases, it wasa moment that could have been between any male athlete and his wife and no one would blink an eye.
Neither kiss should have become a big deal, but they did.
For both couples however, until the day that change does come, it means sport can become a positive platform to provide the LGBTI community with role models.
While Daly has never had issues with her identity or sexuality, Ipswich product Brigginshaw says she used to struggle with being gay and had no LGBTI sporting role models to look up to.
"I used to be quite embarrassed if I had a girlfriend," Brigginshaw says.
"I would say they were just my friend. But in the last couple of years, I've matured and decided I'm not going to hide my love and affection.
"I'm happy and living the life I want to live. We're the idols of young kids now and they can see us as confident and mature women … I just want people tosee they can be happy with who they are."
"Our photo is out there and the more it is out there, the more accepting people will be," she says.
"If that photo can give just one young girl or young boy the confidence to be who they are and not worry about what others think, that'sa really good thing.
"That makes me happy knowing that picture can change someone's confidence."
WHEN the AFLW kicked off in 2017, the players knew they were creating history.
As Lions defender Sam Virgo puts it, the idea was "you can't be what you can't see".
That is the power women's sport has had across Australia with its rapid growth in recent years - if young girls can see womengoing to new heights, it gives them hope for the future.
Virgo is a role model for many who dream of one day playing in the AFLW. Because of this she knows how important it is tojust be herself; as she doesn't know who might be looking up to her, including from within the LGBTI community.
The 31-year-old has been with her partner, Jenna Vandyk, since 2014 and they have a one-month-old daughter, Harriet.
"Sometimesyou don't know what you're role modelling, but if you're open with who you are and how you are, you can be a role model forsomeone without realising that's the behaviour you were portraying," she says.
"Being comfortable and living your life and doing whatever it is that makes you happy is important."
Virgo, who missed season 2018 with an ACL injury, met Vandyk in 2012 and says her partner is one of her greatest supporters.As she prepares to get back on the field, Virgo says she could not have done it without Vandyk's support.
"Rehab is a pretty lonely place so it's good to have support around you," she says.