Another NRL season is now over, and as the realisation dawns on many fans that they won’t get a chance to whinge about the refs for another six months, the only comfort I can offer is that it also means it’s time revisit my fearless predictions.
Yesterday, the Brisbane Broncos beat the St George Illawarra Dragons 30-6 in the NRLW grand final.
The Broncos have only lost one game in the history of the NRLW and the Dragons only really showed what they were capable of from the second week of the competition onwards.
There were several stand-out performances on the day but in particular from Lavinia Gould, Julia Robinson, Amber Hall and Ali Brigginshaw. I especially want to highlight the efforts of Gould, who has had a brilliant season stepping into the shoes of Brittany Breayley, who left the Broncos at the end of last season.
To see the game played before the men’s grand final was also positive and ensured that there were more people in attendance. Opportunities like this to play in front of large crowds at big venues are crucial for the women’s game and its development. The television figures will be positive too.
I’ve watched every NRLW game this year and there have been a couple of things that have really struck me.
Firstly, the pathways are working. Now, young women have a pathway from under-6s all the way to the Australian Jillaroos. In New South Wales, a key part of those pathways are the Tarsha Gale Competition and the Harvey Norman Women’s Premiership.
On the weekend, there were several women playing in the NRLW decider who are direct products of those competitions, including Maddison Weatherall and Keeley Davis from the Tarsha Gale Competition and Botille Vette-Welsh, who is coming off the back of a break-out year with the Wests Tigers in the Harvey Norman Women’s Premiership.
Imagine what these pathways will produce in the next five years.
There has also been a big step up in the level of talent. The kicking game of the players is the area that has improved the most. Kirra Dibb from the Sydney Roosters has demonstrated on many occasions what a big kicking game she has, and of course, many marvelled at the skill of Charntay Poko from the New Zealand Warriors.
The players are also fitter and stronger than last year, which has correlated with an improvement in the quality of the competition.
That means when it comes time for Australian Jillaroos selection in a couple of weeks, the selectors – Brad Donald, Karyn Murphy and Jamie Feeney – are going to have a challenge ahead of them.
This is one of the bittersweet parts of the women’s game. We started to see it last year when the Jillaroos squad was announced – stalwarts of the women’s game like Ruan Sims and Karina Brown (who was later brought in to replace an injured Sammy Bremner) missed out on selection.
These women missed out because of the quality of talent coming through. This talent is partly the result of how hard these trailblazers have worked for the development of the women’s game. Even though they missed out, the opportunities that they fought for over so many years are now there for others.
This is a challenge many other women will face this year. No one’s jersey is safe and the selectors have a big job ahead.
But my biggest takeaway is that it’s time for this competition to grow. Not only is the there the interest but we also have the quality of play.
When we have conversations about expansion, people can become one-eyed and forget that it can be about a lot more than just expanding the number of teams in the competition. For former Australian Jillaroo and NSW Blues captain Tarsha Gale, depth is key.
“Growth in the game is not necessarily width. It’s not more teams. It’s depth. We’ve got four quality teams and we’ve got the depth in them,” Gale says.
“I think growth is not necessarily a new team next year. It could be increasing the games from 30 to 35-minute halves. It could also mean playing a round robin where the teams play each other twice so the season does get a bit longer and the players have longer to gel and we see greater quality football.”
What the NRL is doing so far is working. The talent continues to come through the created pathways and the quality of the competition continues to improve. Let’s not spoil this by running before we can walk.
My preference would also be to see each team play each other twice next year, then entertain the notion of increasing the number of teams the following year.
Clubs have already been asked to express their interest in having an NRLW team in the next couple of years. My understanding is that both the Canberra Raiders and the Parramatta Eels have or will be expressing their interest to have a women’s team in 2021.
This not only gives the talent pool another two years to develop, but should these teams be granted the opportunity to have a women’s team, it will give them plenty of time to develop and provide the necessary infrastructure.
We have a brilliant NRLW competition but now it’s time to make the next step. Let’s make this competition a little bit bigger.