It’s been a long time coming. There have been 488 days since the last game, the 2020 Grand Final, but this Sunday, the NRLW returns with a triple header in Newcastle.
Last year was a near-total write-off, with just the Women’s Origin fixture played at the elite level, so formlines are hard to find.
On top of that, there’s a whole host of new teams, with the Gold Coast Titans, Newcastle Knights and Parramatta Eels joining the Sydney Roosters, Brisbane Broncos and St George Illawarra Dragons – and the expansion has meant plenty of switching between clubs, too.
There’s also an extra dimension to this year’s comp: it’s actually the 2021 NRLW, postponed from last year, with an additional NRLW coming later in 2022 and then the ultimate carrot, a World Cup in the UK in October and plenty of Jillaroos, Kiwi Ferns and even a PNG Orchid or two on show.
Oh, and Women’s Origin might well be expanded too, so expect selection dramas across the board.
With so much to track, let’s crack on – here’s everything you need to know about the NRLW kick-off on Sunday.
The round begins with the NRLW stalwarts againt the new kids on the block, as the Dragons – beaten finalists in 2019 but winless in 2020 – take on the debutantes from the Gold Coast.
The instant drawcard from this is the battle of the fullbacks. The Dragons have named Emma Tonegato – a 2016 Olympic gold medallist in sugby sevens – at fullback, facing up against her Rio 2016 teammate, Evania Pelite at the Titans. If either gets into open space, watch out.
Teagan Berry, who scored a spectacular length of the field effort in the Origin under 19s last year, is just 19 and will match up against Karina Brown, very much at the other end of the experience spectrum. She’s 13 years older than her Dragons counterpart and has been there, done that and got the Jillaroos t-shirt. Two World Cup wins, if you don’t mind.
The Titans can boast two of the best playmaking options in the forwards, with 2018 Women’s Dally M Brittany Breayley-Nati starting at rake and Destiny Brill, good enough for the hooking role for Queensland in last year’s Origin, named in the No.13 jersey.
They’ll have to get by the Dragons front row dream team, featuring NSW Blues captain Kezie Apps and PNG Orchids skipper Elsie Albert.
Safe to say the Dragons won’t lack for experience in the middle, and it might just be enough to see them by the first-gamers.
If it’s box office you want, how about a Grand Final rematch?
The Broncos have won all three previous NRLW titles, but have lost a fair few players with the expansion of the league, while the Roosters, who they defeated in the 2018 and 2020 Grand Finals, have managed to pick up up some major talent for this edition.
The star pick-up is Jess Sergis from the Dragons, the 2019 Dally M medallist, who will form a killer partnership in the centres with Isabelle Kelly, a stick-on starter for the Jillaroos in the World Cup.
With Corban Baxter captaining from the back and Zahara Temara making the play from five-eighth, you can expect the Roosters to get the ball wide early and often.
The Broncos have lost some names due to cap constraints, but their spine remains the best around. Tamika Upton at the back, reigning Dally M medallist Ali Brigginshaw and Tarryn Aitken in the halves, and Lauren Brown behind the ruck give them a level of organisation that few will be able to match.
In a comp where cohesion levels might be low, they will have experienced hands in all their key positions.
There should be fireworks up front, too: Sarah Togatuki has moved to prop after grabbing an Origin jersey in the back row, and she’ll be facing up against her NSW teammate, current SAS Australia star Millie Boyle.
If the Roosters can get the ball to their strike players, they might be able to upset the Broncos – but you never look beyond consistency in the spine, so Brisbane are likely to take this one.
They might have saved the best for last in Newcastle. This is the inaugural game for both teams, and the Knights will have a partisan crowd to see them home in their debut.
They won’t have it easy. Parra have recruited very, very well: Simaima Taufa at lock, Botille Vette-Welsh at fullback and playmaker Maddie Studdon have as much experience at rep level as you could wish for in a spine (well, except for the Broncos). They’ve invested in experience and leadership from day one. Has anyone checked if they’re actually Parramatta?
The Knights have been the biggest beneficiaries of the NZ Warriors inability to play in the first comp this year, with no fewer than eight Kiwi Ferns in their side. Autumn-Rain Stephens-Daly impressed in the All Stars match a few weeks ago and she’s joined by Krystal Rota, the veteran New Zealand rep who goes around again at 36.
They’ll be captained by Romy Teitzel, player of the year in Queensland in 2021, who brings along her North Queensland teammate, Tahlulah Tillett, to play at halfback.
This one looks like it might come down to a battle of experience v youth: while there is plenty of knowhow on both sides, there are also many for whom this will be their first ever game at NRLW level. Whoever can step up best will win.