Rugby league is facing the content conundrum.
On Friday night, the New South Wales Blues beat the Queensland Maroons 14-4 in the second ever women’s State of Origin clash in front of 10,515 people at North Sydney Oval.
There were some stand-out performances on both sides. After a challenging season last year, playing only two games for the Sydney Roosters in the Women’s NRL Premiership and not being selected in the Australian Jillaroos squad in October, Maddie Studdon was named Nellie Doherty Player of the Match for her performance as Blues halfback.
For the Maroons, Heather Ballinger was particularly impressive in the first 20 minutes. She went close to scoring on two occasions, while Stephanie Mooka made the most running metres of either side, with 138 on her debut.
While the Maroons led 4-0 at half time, the Blues ran them down in the second half, much to the delight of the crowd. When NSW took the lead mid-way through the second half, the hill at North Sydney erupted into chants of ‘New South Wales, New South Wales’.
The game itself was enjoyable and the standard of footy was an improvement from last year. This is positive given the number of debutants who were on the field – seven for NSW and four for Queensland. This suggests to me that the pathways in both states are working.
But even more enjoyable than the game itself was the atmosphere.
When we talk about growth in the women’s game, one of the most frequent suggestions is moving the game so that it is a double-header with a men’s Origin clash.
While this ignores the fact that very few people go early enough to attend both games, why on earth would you deny people who love women’s sport the opportunity to watch a stand-alone women’s game and in effect force them to pay the large amount of money that the men’s match charges when some people may only be interested in the women?
The women’s game is in a position where it has the credence to be played as a stand-alone clash and given the crowd on Friday night, no one can doubt that.
When I arrived at North Sydney at 5.20pm on Friday, there were queues of people waiting to enter the ground. People were snaked through the streets of North Sydney.
Gates opened at 5.30pm and by the time the first ever under-18s women’s State of Origin kicked off at 5.40pm there was already a healthy crowd assembled.
By the time the main game started the ground was heaving. There was barely space left in any of the stands and the hill was completely full.
There’s something about women’s sport that creates a friendly, joyful and supportive atmosphere. And that’s exactly what we had on Friday night.
But the one negative of the night was that amenities at North Sydney Oval were stretched by the large crowd. Women were using the men’s bathrooms because the crowds were so long. Families had to wait for over an hour in queues to get food and that food ran out before the start of the second half.
With this in mind, the question is whether women’s State of Origin has outgrown North Sydney Oval, and if so, where else could the fixture be played?
I know that North Sydney Oval has become a hub for women’s sport, but if this Origin fixture is to grow, I’m not sure that the venue can handle any more people.
It’s important to remember that the fixture has been played in NSW for the last three years – both State of Origin and the final instalment of the interstate challenge – so it will no doubt be held in Queensland next year.
It is time for Queensland to get the chance to experience a State of Origin fixture and also to see how the Maroons respond to having a home crowd behind them.
So effectively, we have two years in NSW to grow the women’s game before another Origin is held here.
There are several options.
Could the game be played at Leichhardt Oval? It is close to perfect in size and it also has the magic of a suburban ground, but parking is challenging as are amenities.
What about Bankwest Stadium? I know it’s big, but it certainly gives the game the chance to grow. And because of the way the Stadium is built, even if it’s half full – say 16,000 people – then the atmosphere is still really good.
Another option could be Kogarah Oval given it is one of my favourite suburban grounds.
But it’s positive that this is a conversation we are now able to have.
Who would have thought that five years ago we would have a whole weekend featuring representative fixtures – all kicking off with women’s State of Origin?
The world is changing before our very eyes and the beneficiaries will be the next generation of girls and boys who will grow up in a world where it is completely the norm for both men and women to have the opportunity to play rugby league at a domestic, state and international level.