This article was first written for and published for The Roar.
The women’s State of Origin at North Sydney Oval last Friday night was a roaring success.
While the New South Wales Blues were victors on the night, defeating the Queensland Maroons by 16-10, it felt like this game was about a lot more than the result.
Almost 7000 flocked to North Sydney Oval to watch women’s rugby league. The adults that attended this game paid at least $10 for their ticket. While the attendance at the ground was impressive, it was also backed up by the television numbers.
The average national audience across Nine and Fox League was 689,931 with a peak of 1.010 million. Former Australian Jillaroos like Jo Barrett and Ruan Sims were actively involved in commentary. After the game, fans in attendance swarmed the field to kick their footies around and mob the players with kids (and maybe some adults too) begging for photos and autographs.
Blues fullback Sammy Bremner commented after the game that she found it hard to hear her teammates barking instructions at her, because the crowd was so vocal. That was something she hadn’t experienced before.
Friday night felt like a moment in time in the game. Even more reassuring is that following the game there has been plenty of discussion about how good the quality of the game was and plenty of fans have been left wanting more.
This is wonderful and bodes positively for the new Women’s National Rugby League Premiership at the end of the year.
But amidst calls for more, we need to make sure that we are building a sustainable product and understand where the women’s game is.
One of the first cries after the game concluded was ‘why don’t we have a three-game series?’
A three-game series is certainly what the women’s game is working towards, but there are a couple of factors which mean it may take a little while to get there.
The first is talent and player welfare. On Friday night there were at least four injuries including a season-ending one to Corban McGregor to the Blues and also one to Kody House from the Maroons.
The standard of play was very good on Friday night, but were we to introduce a three-game series, we must query whether we would have the talent to field two quality teams. This is particularly the case with the almost inevitable injuries players suffer because they are not professional and do not have access to the same support when it comes to fitness, strength and conditioning and training that the men do.
Additionally and this is even more importantly, it’s critical to remember that when a player like Boyd Cordner goes into NSW Blues camp, he is taking time out from his full time professional rugby league career.
Boyd continues to be paid by the Roosters while he is playing for the Blues and in fact, receives a significant match payment for featuring in the Origin contest.
Other than the Roosters finals chances and a change of scenery, very little is impacted by his selection into the Blues.
Compare this with Blues women’s captain, Maddie Studdon. It was reported last week that Maddie lost her job because her workplace asked her to choose between work and footy.
This is not quite true. The more accurate story is that because of the increased time that footy was taking, Maddie made a decision to choose football over her job. This is a decision that plenty of female athletes before her have had to make. And a very difficult one.
When the women go into State of Origin camp, many of them have to use their annual leave to take time away from work. Given plenty of the women playing on Friday were also Jillaroos, think about how hard this would be after potentially taking time off for the World Cup.
This difficulty means that plenty of players have difficulty holding down full time jobs. Ali Brigginshaw has alluded to this in the past which is why she works as a labourer and in a contractor capacity.
If we want more from the women’s game, these are issues that need to be addressed and we need to make sure that the players can financially support themselves in camp. Additionally, we need to know that the players will be able to financially support themselves if they sustain an injury during Origin.
For some of these players, an injury would mean that they would not be able to work and would lose their main source of income. That’s not sustainable.
This is not a criticism of the approach the NRL has taken, but rather some of the challenges that need to be tackled before the women’s game can grow.
And as for questions about whether a double-header with the men’s game on Sunday would have been better, perhaps ask the 400 people that turned out to ANZ Stadium early to watch the Residents Game before the men’s.
For those of you who disagree with the approach the NRL is taking in relation to the women’s game, it’s also worth mentioning that throughout the process of growing the women’s game, the NRL has been very focused on making sure they communicate with the people that matter the most – the players.
At almost every step along the way the players have been consulted about how they want to do things – whether they want double-headers, whether they want longer series and how many teams to have in the competition. The NRL is listening to their feedback which is almost all centred around having a sustainable and good-quality product.
The challenge for all of us now is to continue this momentum as we edge closer and closer to the launch of the women’s Premiership in September.