In March this year, the Newcastle Knights finished their first NRLW season with a loss to the Gold Coast Titans. It was their fifth defeat of the five-game season and was far from an illustrious entry to the competition.
Fast forward six months and the Knights are heading into the grand final as favourites to win their first premiership, in one of sport’s more remarkable turnarounds in form. How did such a transformation come about? For it was not simply that the change happened from one season to the next, but also that, due to the pandemic, the seasons occurred so close together – both falling within the same calendar year.
The answer lies in some incredibly savvy recruitment by the Knights in the off-season, luring joint Dally M winner Millie Boyle and star full-back Tamika Upton from the Brisbane Broncos, as well as five members of the Roosters’ premiership-winning squad from the previous season.
While the increase from four to six teams helped to spread the talent more evenly and put an end to the Broncos’ premiership dominance, the ability to change the competition so completely with a few quick off-season recruitments shows that there is still work to do in balancing the teams. While a salary cap exists for the NRLW, at a total of $350,000 per team (compared to $9.118m for the NRLM teams), there is much more than money that goes into recruiting and retaining players, including off-field employment, family considerations and increased representative opportunities.
While the Knights have already achieved a great deal in their second season in the competition, the pressure is on to ensure they do not squander this opportunity as they step out on to the biggest stage at Accor Stadium this weekend.
Their opponents, the Parramatta Eels, seemed almost equally unlikely grand final contenders six months ago. They won only two games – over the Knights and the competition’s other new team the Gold Coast Titans – to finish fifth in the six-team competition. Unlike the Knights, they did not immediately make a splash in the new season either and, in fact, were still in the running for the wooden spoon until a last-ditch win over the Broncos in the final round squeezed them into the semi-finals. Then came an incredible 14-point upset win over the undefeated Roosters to qualify for their first grand final.
In the Eels’ case, it was not an incredible metamorphosis and star player recruitment, but finding their feet in the competition and allowing combinations to settle. A win to the women from Parramatta is not out of the question, but it is likely to be a victory built more on grit and determination than slick set plays.
The Eels are currently sweating on the fitness of centre Tiana Penitani, who averages 100 running metres per game and is crucial to their back line. She has been named on an extended bench and will be desperately hoping to overcome her quadricep injury before kick off on Sunday.
The evolution of coaching in the NRLW has also been a key factor in the maturing competition. The Knights complemented their star-studded line up with a new head coach – Gomeroi man Ronald Griffiths – who took from Casey Bromilow and seems to have brought a new spark to the group, ensuring they gelled quickly to become a dominant force in the competition.
Interestingly, of the four semi-finalists this season, three have First Nations head coaches. Anaiwan man Dean Widders is in his second season in charge of the Eels, while the St George Illawarra Dragons have flourished under the leadership of Wiradjuri man Jamie Soward. With a significant number of First Nations players in the NRLW, it is not surprising that coaches who have a deep understanding of community and culture have been able to create successful team environments in which players can thrive.
With the competition evolving so rapidly – it will expand to 10 teams for the 2023 season – and the Canberra Raiders having already signalled their intent to lure Boyle from the Knights for their entry into the competition in 2023, there is no real opportunity for teams to build a dynasty of long-lasting success. A grand final is therefore a precious opportunity which be capitalised upon, as success may not come as easily the next campaign. This is a lesson the Dragons learnt after their grand final loss earlier this year and subsequent elimination from the finals with a 24-point loss to the Knights last weekend.
Both grand finalists will be aware of the importance of this opportunity as they prepare to run out on Sunday. It all comes down to whether pure grit is enough to pull the Eels over the line, or if the star power of the Knights is too bright to be extinguished.