NRL Women’s Premiership a testament to those who paved the way

This article was first written and published for The Guardian.

hen Katrina Fanning pulled on her first Australian Jillaroos jersey in 1995 never in her wildest dreams did she think that one day women would be able to represent the NRL teams they grew up supporting, in a competition of their own.

A world where women didn’t have to sell their cars to afford going on tour to represent their country, and a world where the media were interested in covering women’s rugby league just seemed beyond the realms of possibility.

But on Saturday the impossible became possible as the inaugural NRL Women’s Premiership (NRLW) began at ANZ Stadium in Sydney.

For Fanning, watching from the stands as women from the Sydney Roosters and New Zealand Warriors ran out, her disbelief was as palpable as her excitement. For those that blazed the path, it was a special moment to take in.

It would be great to imagine the Women’s Premiership starting like a fairytale, with scenes similar to the AFLW where fans were locked out of the stadium and AFL CEO Gil McLachlan stood outside the ground apologising to people who were going to miss out.

It wasn’t exactly like that. Perhaps that moment for rugby league was earlier this year at North Sydney Oval before the first ever Women’s State of Origin. Saturday’s game was played in front of a decent crowd, which built as the game continued, with the size impacted by many factors.

The decision to schedule the NRLW during the NRL finals series to maximise exposure meant the draw was unknown until last Sunday, making it challenging for many people wanting to travel.

Unfortunately, for Roosters fans, the scheduling also meant fans were forced to choose between watching the men or the women, with the women kicking off at ANZ Stadium at 3.05pm and the men playing at Allianz Stadium at 7.35pm. The reasoning behind this? TV broadcast.

The game between the Warriors and Penrith had to have the earlier time slot, because a later kick off would have meant a 9.35pm broadcast in New Zealand. Because the Roosters are guaranteed another game in the finals, the women will still be able to play in a double header with the men in coming weeks.

Not that those who made it out to Homebush were complaining – they appeared happy enough and enthused by what they were witnessing, not least some of the huge hits during the course of the game. One in particular by Netta Nuuausala was felt by every fan in the house.

Fathers brought their daughters who were holding signs for Karina Brown and Maddie Studdon. Some traditional footy fans were there for their first women’s game, chatting tactics. Others were there because they’ve been on the journey from the beginning and wouldn’t have been anywhere else. There were even people wearing Rooster’s women’s jerseys in the crowd.

Equally as important, Saturday’s inaugural match highlighted something hugely important: this competition will be be successful long term because the NRL believe in it.

It may be starting small with four teams, but this means talent is evenly distributed across the board. The game was a quality affair, a match of high skill and talent which the remainder of the competition will no doubt mirror.

It was a confident beginning that suggests the NRL will look after this competition. They will proceed with caution and only expand after close consultation with the players and when the talent pool exists to ensure the game stays exciting and high quality.

When the Brisbane Broncos women run out at Suncorp Stadium on Sunday as they play the St George Illawarra Dragons in a double header ahead of the men, it will be in front of plenty.

But for those watching Roosters v Warriors, there was still plenty of emotion – some quiet reflection, maybe even a few tears. Because Saturday was for the women who never had an opportunity to play at an elite level, for the women who have waited so long for this opportunity to play at an elite level and for the next generation who we don’t yet know, but will get their opportunity because the trailblazers who took to the field on Saturday.

The Warriors won the game 10-4, a positive sign for the competition’s only female coach and no doubt the Roosters will be bitterly disappointed. But irrespective of the result, Saturday was about more than that. It was about the next chapter in the women’s game and a narrative where little girls and boys grow up knowing they can play rugby league at an elite level if they want to.

The time for the women’s game has arrived. An exciting journey awaits.