NRLW final preview: a fitting capstone to a breakout year

This article was first written and published for The Guardian

The Women’s Premiership is another huge first as NRLW and the inaugural State of Origin cap a bumper 2018.

2018 will always be remembered as a breakout year for women’s rugby league.

It’s very hard to pick a standout moment so far. Was it the inaugural State of Origin game played in June at North Sydney Oval? Was it the first game in the NRL Women’s Premiership earlier this month between the Warriors and the Roosters?

Or is the standout moment yet to come on Sunday afternoon when the Roosters take on the Broncos in the first ever NRLW grand final?

Sunday’s two teams could not possibly have had more contrasting runs to the final.

The Broncos have been the dominant team throughout. So far they have beaten each team comprehensively – with wins over the St George Illawarra Dragons (30-4), the Roosters (14-4) and the Warriors (32-10).

Whilst the Broncos have been strong across the board, much of their success has come down to their spine.

Ali Brigginshaw has been one of the most influential players in the competition and has either scored a try or set one up herself in each game. If the Roosters are going to beat the Broncos, it’s simple – they must shut Ali down and not give her room to operate.

But it’s not just Brigginshaw that poses a threat. At the Dally M Awards, Brittany Breayley was named the Dally M female player of the year, and deservedly so. In each game she has played this year she has made the most tackles, but has also provided quick and effective service out of dummy half and on several occasions blitzed the line to score points of her own.

Additionally, the Broncos also have speed to burn with fullback Chelsea Baker, not to mention the added bonus of her excellent goalkicking ability. The battle between her and Queensland and Australian Jillaroos fullback Karina Brown will be one to keep an eye on.

The Roosters, on the other hand, have made it through to the Grand Final by the skin of their teeth. Their first win of the season came last Sunday against the Dragons by 26 points, and this one win was enough for them to book their place in the Grand Final.

Interestingly, the Roosters are the team that have come closest to beating the Broncos. There was just ten points in it the last time these two teams met and you wonder how different the game would have been had there not been two disallowed tries – one to Karina Brown and one to her partner Vanessa Foliaki. Would this have been enough to get the Roosters across the line?

As well as limiting the attacking impact of Brigginshaw, for the Roosters to win this game, the halves must get good early ball to the speedsters on the edges like Isabelle Kelly and Taleena Simon. In the Roosters’ win over the Dragons, Taleena scored four tries.

Speaking of the halves, another big question mark is who will be the Roosters halfback. Last week, coach Adam Hartigan made a big call when he decided to drop New South Wales captain Maddie Studdon in favour of Zahara Temara. Adam will be faced with a difficult decision and the big question is, will he change a winning formula or stick with what worked last week?

While Sunday will be a history-making event for the women’s game and in particular the women taking the field, it’s worth acknowledging another special woman, and that’s Kasey Badger. Kasey is an NRL referee and has been given the honour of refereeing Sunday’s match. She has often joked that being a referee is the longest apprenticeship in the world and her call up is well deserved.

It will presumably be a bittersweet occasion for Kasey who was one of the women of an era gone past who had to give up playing rugby league because of their gender. While it will be a dream come true for her to officiate this game, a part of her no doubt also wishes that she was playing instead.

If we have learnt anything from the NRLW this year, it is that the product is quality. By limiting the teams to just four and ensuring an equal distribution of talent, the competition has been full of bone-crunching tackles, creativity in attack and some moments of individual brilliance.

While this has been a breakout year for the women’s game, it has also demonstrated the game’s ability to prove successful in the long term, with the best very much still yet to come.