In what was an exceptionally difficult year for all of us, the NRL managed admirably in 2020.
Not only was the NRL the first Australian domestic sporting competition to return to screens during COVID-19 (thanks Peter V’landys), but in a year when there was significant pressure to reduce spending and potentially a temptation to cut costs across women’s sport, the NRL reaffirmed its commitment to the NRLW.
The competition may have remained in the same format at the first two years (four teams who played each other once) but there was plenty of work done behind the scenes and by the players themselves to make sure the New Zealand Warriors could participate.
This included Brad Donald, current Australian Jillaroos coach, being appointed as caretaker coach and several of the women based in New Zealand doing two weeks of quarantine before entering Australia, as well as a further two weeks of quarantine when heading home, all to participate in a competition that lasted no longer than a month. That’s commitment.
But 2021 is a new year and it’s time for the NRL to start sharing its plans about what the next couple of years look like for this exciting competition.
Staying stagnant is not an option.
Following last week’s announcement by the NRL of a $24.7 million loss for 2020, Andrew Abdo has spoken candidly about some of the opportunities and key areas of potential focus.
This included expansion, development of the nines format, the introduction of a player transfer window and central contract registration, and increasing the number of rounds and teams in the NRLW.
Increasing the number of rounds and teams in the NRLW must be a priority. The NRL needs to communicate its plans for this season and for the seasons ahead – not just to affirm to fans the importance of the competition, but also to give clubs enough time to prepare and plan.
Prior to the pandemic, there were whispers about doubling the length of the season in 2020 and considering applications from interested teams to participate in the competition from potentially as early as 2021.
The pandemic, of course, threw those plans into disarray. But it’s time to bring them back to life.
At the very least, this year we need to see the competition double in length. Each team must play each other twice and this could also lead to the introduction of a semi-finals series rather than the regular season then a grand final.
The four-week format may have worked initially to align with the NRL finals series, but after using this format for three years and seeing the tremendous interest in the competition and the talent within it, it is time to do more.
The next question becomes which teams will be next to enter the competition? There are several contenders.
The South Sydney Rabbitohs expressed interest in the NRLW initially and were denied a spot in the competition. Since then, women’s footy in Redfern has continued to flourish, with Souths featuring a team in the NSW women’s premiership.
The same can be said for the Wests Tigers, who have also expressed an interest in having a team when the next round of licences are granted.
In terms of commitment to women’s footy, the Tigers are among the leaders of the pack with a centre of excellence being built at Concord and a settled pathway including a Tarsha Gale team and a team in the NSW women’s premiership featuring Botille Vette-Welsh and under-19s State of Origin representatives and twins Sophie and Emily Curtain.
The Parramatta Eels are looking forward to a new development at Kellyville, which will be a state-of-the-art facility with room for men’s, women’s and junior footy to take place.
The Eels are another club that expressed interest in a licence or showed a commitment to women’s rugby league, alongside clubs like the Canberra Raiders, Newcastle Knights and Gold Coast Titans.
In the NRL’s 2019 annual report, it was announced that there were 28,000 women and girls registered to play club rugby league across tackle and tag formats in 2019.
This was up 18.4 per cent year on year. I expect that this will have grown further in 2020. It’s time to be ambitious and take advantage of this growth.
Other leagues have continued to grow and to expand. The AFLW began with eight teams and now has 14. I have questions as to whether this competition expanded too quickly, but the AFLW has been aggressive in its approach.
Additionally, the WBBL may not have introduced any more teams, but its format has changed. The WBBL is now played in its own stand-alone window, recognising that there is enough interest in the competition to do so.
I’m not suggesting growth simply for growth’s sake. I completely understand why the NRL started small and was so focused on creating a sustainable and exciting competition.
But the NRLW is an exciting competition and always leaves players and fans wanting more at the end of a very short season.
In 2021, it’s time that the NRL gave us more.
On a side note, it’s such a privilege and a pleasure to have the opportunity to write for The Roar during the NRL season. The Roar has created a really special and unique community here and I look forward to plenty of rigorous discussion through the season with all of you.