When she was a little girl in Rotorua, Lisa Tauariki dreamed of being a league player.

She watched the Winfield Cup religiously and, like many kids growing up in the early 90s, was a mad supporter of the green machine Canberra Raiders - the glamour team of the era. She wanted to be just like Mel Meninga.

"I always used to think, 'Man, I wish I was born a boy,' because I would have loved to play league [in Australia] - I badly wanted to be a footy star," said Tauariki.

Now 30, Tauariki finally has the opportunity to play footy in front of big crowds and a television audience. She just has to strip down to her underwear to do it.


Tauariki is one of three New Zealand-born women playing for the NSW Surge in the Legends Football League (formerly the Lingerie Football League), which started in Australia this month.

"This is the next best thing I suppose, it's kind of living a dream that I've always wanted - to be given a platform playing football," she said.

The seven-on-seven competition, in which the players wear skimpy outfits and play full contact American football, originated in the US and is embarking on a global expansion plan, boldly claiming to be the fastest-growing professional league in the world.

Wherever it goes, it faces opponents who say it is sexploitation rather than sport and undermines the efforts of other sportswomen to be recognised for their skill rather than their physical appearance.

Women's sport has struggled to gain TV cover in Australia, but the LFL quickly snapped up a broadcast deal with Channel Seven, which has marketed its coverage solely on the physical appeal of the women.

Yet the players are not paid. They also have to pay for their own health insurance coverage if they are injured - and because of the lack of protective wear, injuries are common.

Tauariki knows what the critics say about the LFL, but she is not bothered by the negative attention.

She hopes that one day she will get paid for her efforts, which involve three full contact training sessions a week on top of individual gym and fitness sessions, but for now she is enjoying the ride.

"It's like any business - you have to get up and running first," she said.

"At this stage we're not expecting to get a pay packet. Who knows if we will or not, but hopefully if sponsors jump on board things might start looking up.

"We don't really do it for the money. For me, it was more just for the challenge. And what comes with it is you get a bit of stardom and a bit of recognition for playing something. It's really hard for women's sport to get any recognition for anything. Even netball over here doesn't get much recognition or TV time."

As for those revealing uniforms, Tauariki points out they are no different from what beach volleyball players wear, or what sprinters wear at athletics meets.

No different in appearance maybe, but playing full contact sport in next to nothing heightens the likelihood of an errant nipple or bum cheek being exposed.

While there is no doubt the uniforms are designed to titillate, but the grit and athleticism of the women taking part cannot be denied.

Many players have been representatives in other sports, including athletics, rugby and ice hockey, and are impressive athletes in their own right. Tauariki played almost every sport on offer when she was at school, including rugby, touch, netball and basketball, but her main love was rodeo. She is from a rodeo family, and says "barrel racing, team roping and riding the odd steer was my life".

"We're not just a bunch of supermodels running around with a ball trying to look good. It's really full on - the hits are hard, it's fast and it's fierce."

But the players still have to maintain strict standards in appearance.

One player, a former Australian national swimming champion, was reportedly axed from the Queensland team hours before the kickoff of the opening game against the Surge as she was deemed to be too big.

"Like in any sport, I suppose there has to be criteria you do have to meet," said Tauariki.

"There is a bit of a marketing thing - you do have to be physically fit and in shape. If you're not, you're not doing the sport any favours."