Poor Mario Fenech.
Last week I wrote about why Women in League Round is important. We need to recognise the range of roles that women play in our game, but also remind the next generation of women that there is a place for them in the rugby league family however they want to be involved.
I’ve watched the round evolve over the last 11 years and for me, the success of the round this year culminated in the Interstate Challenge played on Sunday morning between the New South Wales Blues and the Queensland Maroons at WIN Stadium.
This game was a first for so many reasons. It was the first time women’s rugby league was televised live on television (a big thank you to Fox Sports for this). The game was also accessible to all sports fans via ABC Grandstand and NRL.com.
It was also the first time in the history of the Interstate Challenge that the Blues have won the encounter two years in a row. If you think the current men’s Maroons dynasty is hard to fathom, the Maroons women’s team won the Nellie Doherty Cup for the first 17 years in a row. Last year with a 6-4 victory the Blues won for the very first time, and backed it up with a 22-6 victory on Sunday.
Stand out players were Jessica Sergis, one of the youngest members of the team who scored a hat trick and Kezie Apps who was awarded ‘Player of the Match’ in her first game returning from a broken leg which she sustained earlier this year during the Auckland Nines.
Fortunately, the only injury concern to come out of this game was an ankle sprain for speedy Blues fullback Sammy Bremner.
It was extremely positive to see so many people interested in this fixture. Approximately 47,000 people tuned into the live broadcast on Fox Sports. This figure does not take into account the people who watched a replay, streamed the game on NRL.com or listened on ABC Grandstand.
But with increased interest comes more questions and I know there are plenty of you who still have questions about the women’s game. On the weekend, I had the opportunity to speak with Australian Jillaroos coach Brad Donald and NRL Female Participation Manager Sally McGarn and had some of these questions answered.
Why isn’t the Interstate Challenge called State of Origin?
Ahead of the Interstate Challenge, plenty were questioning why this game isn’t branded as State of Origin.
It’s because selection for each of the teams is residence based, rather than based on where each player played their first football.
For example, Rona Peters was selected for Queensland because she plays in the South East Queensland Competition but is also eligible to play for the Kiwi Ferns.
Another interesting case is Vanessa Foliaki who plays in the South East Queensland competition but represented New South Wales on Sunday after asking to keep her allegiance to the state last year and both New South Wales and Queensland Rugby League accommodating this request.
The intention is certainly to turn the Interstate Challenge into a State of Origin concept over time. The trick will be developing appropriate eligibility criteria in a context where many of the women pushing for selection have not had the opportunity to play football between ages 12-18.
After that, the next focus will be for the fixture to be played as a double-header with the men’s contest and eventually turning the Interstate Challenge into a three-game series.
When is the NRL getting a women’s competition?
This is the question I get asked the most and there is an automatic assumption that the NRL is being left behind in this space and that as a code, we should be moving faster.
When Brad Donald took over as coach of the Australian Jillaroos in November, he got the wider squad of 34 women together and asked them what their goals were.
Apart from winning the Rugby League World Cup at the end of this year, the women made it clear that they wanted to empower all women to feel like they had the opportunity to play rugby league and ensure that when they wore that green and gold jersey that they were playing high-quality football.
So while it may look like the sport is lagging behind, the ‘steady as she goes’ approach reflects a mixture of what the NRL want, what the current Australian Jillaroos want and what the research tells us about women’s sport.
At the moment, the focus is professionalising women’s rugby game. Interestingly when Brad took over in November last year, only seven of the 34 players in the wider squad were part of a strength program. When you consider that these women are representing our country in rugby league that is quite astounding and has since been fixed by reducing barriers to entry (like gym membership fees and access to facilities).
It’s important to remember how far the women’s game has come. Five years ago women who played in the Interstate Challenge had to pay a levy to play. Some women had to sell their cars to get to the World Cup.
So where are we now?
The level below the Jillaroos has six teams which represent various regions. In New South Wales women played City vs Country for the first time this year. A couple of weeks ago the Queensland State Titles were held between the three Queensland teams. Before the World Cup, a Combined Affiliates State Team will play against the Cook Islands.
After this fixture takes place, we should have a much better idea of the current level of talent available through this six teams and work out how quickly we can progress from here.
We are still yet to see a woman represent Australia who has played rugby league from under 6s to opens level. Thanks to Harvey Norman and a new partnership with New South Wales and Queensland rugby league, there is now an unbroken pathway for women to play from under 6s all the way to opens. So we aren’t far away.
What are some of the key participation milestones the NRL has reached in the last 2 years?
The women’s game is the fastest growing element of rugby league and the NRL is on track to register a 31 per cent increase in participation this year.
This year the NRL has started its National School’s Strategy which means that every time there is a male rugby league offering in schools, there will also be a female offering.
This coincides with the two major state wide competitions for women – the Karyn Murphy competition in Queensland and the Legends Shield in New South Wales which goes from under 11s to opens.
What’s next for women’s football this year?
Today, the Australian Jillaroos are back into training, working towards the World Cup.
The goal will be to work on their strength and conditioning whether in person or via remote technology.
With plans to play a trial game before the World Cup (which could be in Papua New Guinea against one of the teams arriving for their campaign a bit earlier), you will still have the opportunity to see our Jillaroos in action before their official campaign gets underway in November.
So from where I’m standing, while we may not have a women’s competition yet, everyone is working extremely hard to make sure that when we are ready to take that next step that an exciting, sustainable product can be created.