Maroons and Sky Blues fit for historic occasion in Women’s State of Origin

<span>New South Wales Sky Blues and Queensland Maroons will play a historic three-game Women's State of Origin series starting at Suncorp Stadium.</span><span>Photograph: Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images</span>
New South Wales Sky Blues and Queensland Maroons will play a historic three-game Women's State of Origin series starting at Suncorp Stadium.Photograph: Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images

As New South Wales second rower Yasmin Clydsdale reached out desperately towards the tryline with 25 seconds remaining in Game 2 of last year’s Women’s State of Origin series, it should have been a bigger moment. The drama of the eventual penalty try, after Queensland centre Shenae Ciesiolka had led with her boot in preventing the grounding, was undercut by a sense of disappointment – this was a two-match series, and even though the teams won a game each, there would be no decider. Instead Queensland lifted the shield after winning the second-ever women’s series on points aggregate.

Being forced into doing frantic maths in the heat of an exciting finish to figure out who will take the series win is far from ideal. Neither are drawn series satisfying for anyone.

While 2023 was the first time women’s Origin had been more than a standalone match, the fact that the series was not fully realised lingered over the whole occasion. So the NRL’s decision to extend women’s Origin to a three-match series in 2024 was welcomed with delight when it was announced late last year.

Related: Women’s rugby league needs its own ‘Matildas effect’. State of Origin could be the catalyst | Ali Brigginshaw

This is now a momentous occasion for women’s rugby league, providing the opportunity to showcase the game at its pinnacle and build the rivalry and drama to new levels. While Queensland will enter the arena as favourites – with two home games and the shield to their name – last year’s series demonstrated the grit and determination that NSW can muster under pressure to grind out a victory.

The timing of the series also adds an air of unpredictability to the occasion, as rather than being mid-season when players are in peak conditions – as is the case with men’s Origin – the series takes place in the NRLW pre-season. To step out onto arguably the game’s biggest stage without match play in their legs is a significant hurdle that the players must conquer and often leads to erratic passages of play, especially in the first game of the series. The team that settles and finds stability quickest can take a significant advantage into the series – as Queensland discovered last year.

The opening game of the series presents a significant challenge for NSW. More than just facing a simple home ground advantage for Queensland, the Sky Blues will need to take on the fortress that is Suncorp Stadium. It is a venue whose very walls are imbued with the legend of Origin series past, that is so tied up in the history of Queensland players rising up and breaking through the line to score that it seems that every blade of grass is ready to bleed maroon if required. Queensland are known for their ability to draw on the history and emotion of the occasion to become greater than the sum of their parts and nowhere is this more evident than within the confines of their traditional home venue.

Sky Blues coach Kylie Hilder has had all this to consider when assembling her team – a process that reportedly involved a 36-player squad and a seven-week selection camp – and has selected an experienced side with the ability to hold their nerve under the kind of pressure that will be exerted in the Queensland stronghold.

The most notable change from last year’s series is the halves pairing of Rachael Pearson and Corban Baxter. Pearson played the first match of the 2023 series, but was dropped for Taliah Fuimaono in the second, while Baxter returns to the side after the birth of her second child, replacing Newcastle Knights’ playmaker Jesse Southwell in five-eighth. Pearson and Baxter’s experience will be key to guiding the Sky Blues to victory and creating the space and opportunity for their exciting backs to find the tryline.

Queensland’s halves combination remains unchanged from last year, with an experiment that saw captain Ali Brigginshaw shifted to lock to make way for Zahara Temara in half-back proving to be a successful one for coach Tahnee Norris. The Maroons have been forced into a change to their preferred lineup, with prop Keilee Joseph ruled out of the first game due to an MCL sprain. Young North Queensland Cowboys’ forward Mackenzie Weale has been named on the interchange bench as her replacement.

With the NRLW due for an expansion to 12 teams in 2025, this is an exciting time for women’s rugby league, with incredible growth taking place and the competition for places in Origin teams getting tougher every year. With the stage now set for a full three-match series, the players have the opportunity to showcase the excitement of their sport under the brightest spotlight – not only their strength and talent, but the sheer drama and spectacle that comes with pitting mate against mate, and state against state, on the Origin field.

  • Follow the 2024 Women’s State of Origin series opener at Suncorp Stadium with Guardian Australia’s minute-by-minute live blog. Kick-off on Thursday night is 7.45pm AEST