Maturing NRLW shows potential to shape international rugby league

<span>Photograph: Dan Himbrechts/AAP</span>
Photograph: Dan Himbrechts/AAP

Although it is only 131 days since the Sydney Roosters and St George-Illawarra Dragons contested the last NRLW grand final, a new season is about to kick off. With the 2021 season postponed to the start of this year due to the pandemic, NRLW players are backing up only four months after they finished last season to do it all again.

It may seem jarring, but for the players the short turnaround is a small price to pay for another season on the field and the increasing professionalism of the game. With the postponed Rugby League World Cup taking place in England just a few weeks after the end of this year’s second NRLW season, there is an extra layer of intrigue as the increased talent pool competes for Jillaroos places.

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Although progress in the professionalisation of women’s sport has not yet resulted in equality between the men’s and women’s codes, Australia’s relatively early investment in women’s rugby league will be notable in the upcoming World Cup. The last tournament was held in 2017 – before the first season of the NRLW was played. The Jillaroos were dominant, going through undefeated, at a time when none of their players were competing in a professional domestic competition. After five seasons of the NRLW, their dominance could soon become devastating.

A similar pattern has been seen in cricket, where Australia made early investment in the professionalisation of domestic and international players. Coming into the eighth season of the Women’s Big Bash League, the Australian team’s dominance on the international stage is yet to be reeled in.

This is the trail that the NRLW is just beginning to blaze – one that creates an almost unbeatable legacy and forces other countries to take their women’s competitions seriously in order to even begin to dismantle Australia’s dominance.

This past season highlighted the maturity of the competition, putting the foundations in place for this legacy to eventuate. For the first time the Brisbane Broncos not only missed out on the premiership, but failed to even qualify for the grand final. The increase to six teams succeeded in creating a more even talent spread, although two of the new teams in particular – the Newcastle Knights and Parramatta Eels – were not as competitive as the more established teams.

However, after a season to settle into the competition and some key movements between clubs, the upcoming season looks set to be the closest yet. With joint Dally M winner Millie Boyle and star fullback Tamika Upton leaving the Broncos for the Knights, the Novocastrians have immediately acquired a lot more speed, power and momentum that may propel them into finals contention.

The Eels have been a little quieter on the recruitment front, but a pair of cross-code athletes have stirred up some excitement in their preseason. Gayle Broughton comes into the NRLW as a rookie, but at 26 years old and with Olympic gold and silver medals in rugby sevens to her name, she is far from inexperienced. Brooke Walker meanwhile will enter her third professional sport. Walker has represented Australia in sevens and is also currently contracted to Carlton in the AFLW, in an incredibly rare straddling of the Barassi Line.

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The most anticipated clash of the season – the grand final rematch between the Roosters and the Dragons – has had an extra layer of excitement added as the NRL announced last week that the round three match will be shifted from Leichhardt Oval to become the first match played at the new Allianz Stadium as part of a double header with a men’s match between the Roosters and South Sydney Rabbitohs.

It is an exciting opportunity for the players to break new ground, but it has left many fans of the women’s game disappointed, as tickets for the men’s match were already sold out before the NRLW venue change was announced. A relatively early Friday evening start time of 5:40pm means there is some work to be done at NRL headquarters to ensure the crowd is encouraged to arrive early for what is likely to be an enthralling contest.

With the competition set to increase to 10 teams in 2023, there is little doubt this second 2022 season will be captivating. The teams will be eyeing off this season as their best chance to win a premiership – before the four new teams enter the arena and begin snaffling talent. While professional women’s rugby league is still in its early stages, the contests over the next seven weeks will pave the way for that enduring legacy that has the potential to shape the international game for years to come.