Women making their mark at the Cup

This article was first written for and published by NRL.com.

After three days of intense competition, the semi-finals of the Women’s Rugby League World cup have been decided.

On Sunday afternoon at Southern Cross Group Stadium, the England Lionesses will play the Kiwi Ferns and the Australian Jillaroos will play the Canada Ravens.

This Women’s Rugby League World Cup has had plenty of special moments so far and plenty of those came out of the three games that happened on Wednesday.

The moment that everyone is talking about is the shock upset – when the Cook Islands defeated England 22-16.

Just to put this victory in perspective, the Cook Islands team only came together as a team at the start of this World Cup – about 13 days ago. These women have come from all over the world – some are based in Perth and others have come from overseas from places like Fiji, New Zealand and the Cook Islands. What differentiates the women representing the Cook Islands from other teams in this World Cup is that for many of them, their link to the Cook Islands is via their ancestry rather than residing in the country.

For this team, it is of tremendous significance that they are playing in a World Cup.

Handed the toughest draw at the start of the tournament and set to face Australia, New Zealand and England, it was always going to be tough for this group of women.

They played the Jillaroos first and it was momentous when they scored a try.

But the best moment was yet to come for these women and it came on day three when they defeated England.

The Cook Islands led 16-0 at half-time with tries to Beniamina Koiatu, Katelyn Arona and Cecelia Strickland.

Despite England fighting back through tries to Emma Slowe, Amy Hardcastle and Kayleigh Bulman, the Cook Islands managed to score in the last minute of the game. Captain Kura Ngata-Aerengamata offloaded to her sister Te Amohaere Ngata-Aerengamata to help lead the Cook Islands to a historic first ever World Cup win. And then the team celebrated like they had just won a World Cup Final.

I spoke with Beniamina Koiatu after the game – a woman who is 35 years old and who only played her first rugby league game when the Cook Islands played England.

Beniamina was overcome with emotion and when I asked her how it felt to be part of the Cook Islands team. Her eyes filled with tears and she simply said “I have no words”.

The Cook Islands leave Australia with one win and two losses. I suspect that we will be seeing these women on the international stage again soon.

Onto the Jillaroos who demolished Canada 88-0 in their final game before the semi-finals.

Zahara Temara, Vanessa Foliaki, Elliana Walton and Karina Brown each finished the gamer with a hat-trick.

But success has not come without its challenges for coach Brad Donald who will have some tough decisions to make for the semi-finals.

Let’s start with the halves. Caitlin Moran was selected to play halfback in the first two matches of the World Cup. Caitlin performed well and played strongly alongside Ali Brigginshaw, but given her chance yesterday as the No.7 Maddie Studdon set up six tries and even scored one herself.

There are plenty of names in the mix for the outside backs too, particularly considering that Sammy Bremner has been rested till this point to ensure that she was fully fit from an ankle injury she got in the Interstate Challenge earlier this year.

The selectors will have some tough decisions to make, but I know that whoever is selected will come into the game against Canada with an understanding that there is competition for every single jersey.

For some teams, their World Cup journey has come to an end.

To the women from the Cook Islands women’s rugby league team and the Papua New Guinea Orchids, I wish you safe travels home.

I congratulate each of you for your participation in the World Cup and hope you never forget how significant it was for you and your countries to be represented here.

To people of influence in the rugby league communities of the Cook Islands and Papua New Guinea, your job is only half done. Your challenge is to ensure that when these women return home, that they continue to have the opportunity to play rugby league and that by the next time a Rugby League World Cup happens, each of these teams have had more than two months to prepare.

If you can succeed in making this happen, perhaps a Jillaroos tournament victory would not look as certain from the outset.

Now onto the semi-finals.

To people that love their rugby league or who say they are advocates for women in league, this weekend I need you to do a lot more than talk the talk – I need you to walk the walk.

Pledging your support in words is extremely important, but what is more powerful than just words is action.

Our Jillaroos are just one game away from playing in consecutive Rugby League World Cup Finals and deserve to play in front of a packed stadium at Southern Cross Group Stadium.

There really aren’t too many excuses. The weather is looking good for Sunday, tickets are very affordable, this game will be the final World Cup game in Sydney and one of your final opportunities to watch live footy before the season kicks off in March.

Get yourselves down here and make that a reality for them – our team well and truly deserve it.