This story was first written and published for The Roar.
Over the last couple of days I have seen some exceptionally lazy commentary about the upcoming NRL Women’s competition, particularly following Friday, when bids to have a team in the inaugural competition officially closed.
According to reports, the teams that have expressed interest and put in bids were the St George Illawarra Dragons, the Cronulla Sharks, the Sydney Roosters, the Brisbane Broncos and the South Sydney Rabbitohs.
What’s missing from that geographical spread is a team in traditional rugby league heartland, Western Sydney.
Some have been critical of clubs in these areas, like the Wests Tigers, Parramatta Eels and Canterbury Bulldogs, for initially expressing interest in the competition but not following that up with a formal bid, and some have labelled it a demonstration of a lack of interest in women’s rugby league.
That accusation is ill-informed.
The NRL made its announcement about the women’s competition on 5 December 2017 just after the conclusion of the Rugby League World Cup. It made sense to make the announcement at this point in time given the victory and success of our Australian Jillaroos at the tournament, but it didn’t make much sense from a planning and administrative point of view, particularly if the NRL was hoping the teams that would show interest in that competition would bear the financial costs of fielding a team.
By December of any given year, a club has worked out its budget for the coming season and have allocated spend. We read countless articles about how few clubs are profitable, so it’s fair to say that there would be very few with buckets of money sitting aside for miscellaneous purposes, particularly the sort of cash required to properly field and support an additional team.
This lack of funds is an even more pronounced problem for clubs that are at the beginning of their women’s rugby league journey, because these teams will have start-up costs. For example, many stadia do not have women’s changerooms. Getting the right facilities is a necessity for most clubs, but they’re ultimately costs they must budget for.
It therefore comes as no surprise that teams like the Sharks and Dragons are in a position to put in bids. These are the two Sydney teams that have led the way for women’s rugby league. Not only did both participate in the Sharks nines competition last year, meaning that appropriate facilities are available and they have strong talent to draw upon from the local women’s competitions in the south, but the Sharks even went as far as contracting players last year, including Ruan Sims. Kezie Apps is also linked with the Dragons.
I understand that when AFLW started the clubs that were granted licenses were also given a grant from the AFL to help support the establishment of the teams. If a similar offer is not made to rugby league teams, then I can completely understand why clubs would tread carefully in the coming year, particularly when Todd Greenberg made it abundantly clear earlier this year that the NRL does not have the funds to ‘bail out’ clubs that operate at a loss. Financial survival is paramount.
But even if we only have four teams in the initial competition, so what? I’m really comfortable with the NRL and the clubs taking this process slowly and starting with a six-week, four-team competition this year with a view to growing in coming years.
Now that clubs have been given the opportunity to go through the bid process and see what is required of them, each team that hasn’t put in an application can begin planning and working towards having the funds necessary to field a team in 2020.
The Eels, Tigers and Bulldogs all have a team in the Tarsha Gale competition, so to say they have no interest in women’s rugby league is completely unwarranted and unfair. I have every confidence that these particular three teams will be in a much better position to put in a bid for an entry in 2020 when the competition is ready to expand again.
I still remain really excited about the NRL’s announcement last year because I know that the game will be able to stand on its own two feet as a product.
There has been plenty of media attention over the last two weeks on the AFLW, particularly surrounding the infamous ‘leaked memo’ which went to AFLW coaches telling them how to structure their teams and how to play the game to make it more appealing and higher scoring.
While I question the AFL for doing this, particularly since I am of the view that the game needs time to develop organically, I am confident that this would never happen in rugby league, because our product is already good and has the excitement in attack and ferocity in defence that we are so used to in the men’s competition.
You only need to tune in to watch the Jillaroos play the Kiwi Ferns or the Interstate Challenge to see this on show.
So whether we start with four teams or eight teams and whether it takes two years or ten to get to a geographically representative competition, I have enough faith in the quality of play and in the women playing rugby league to know that the NRL’s women’s competition will be a success.