This article was first written for NRL.com.
When it comes to rugby league, there really is no off-season.
With the NRL and NRLW competitions completed, this weekend international rugby league will be in the spotlight with the Kangaroos set to take on the Kiwis and the Jillaroos playing the Kiwi Ferns this Saturday in New Zealand.
For the Jillaroos and Kiwi Ferns, this Test match is the start of a new era because it is the first international match played post completion of the inaugural NRLW competition.
That competition was the crescendo to a year which, particularly in Australia, has seen women being given the opportunity to play top-level rugby league more frequently and consistently than ever before.
Women’s State of Origin, the Harvey Norman Women’s Premiership and the NRLW – it’s been quite a ride.
When I spoke to people at the end of the NRLW competition the only criticism was that the competition was too short.
The first season left many hungry for more women’s footy, making the timing of this Test match impeccable.
What’s also exciting is that for those fans that may be new converts to women’s footy because of the NRLW competition, plenty of faces in both the Jillaroos and Ferns squad will be familiar because they shone for the Dragons, Roosters, Warriors and Broncos.
In the past, some footy fans may have only known bigger names like Kezie Apps, Simaima Taufa and Honey Hireme – but the NRLW made players both in Australia and New Zealand more visible.
The other side of the coin are those of us who have been following the women’s game for some time.
If that’s you, when you saw the squad announcement you may have noticed that there were some women who missed out on selection for this Test – most notably, former captain of the Australian Jillaroos Ruan Sims.
Karina Brown was also not initially selected but has been brought into the squad to replace the injured Samantha Bremner.
There’s no other way to put it – the last two years have been rotten in terms of injury woes for Sammy. After fracturing her toe in September during the NRLW and missing the Dragons’ final two games, I’m sure she will be gutted to also be missing this Test.
Missing out on selection will be bitterly disappointing for Ruan, but I’m sure part of her is exceptionally proud that she was one of the trailblazers who had pushed for the women’s competition.
The rewards of that effort are being realised with six women named to debut for the Jillaroos on Saturday – many of whom were discovered directly as a result of the NRLW.
In order for the women’s game to continue to grow, uncovering new talent is just as important as making sure that there is plenty of competition for representative honours.
I also have no doubt, that following a horror year with injuries, Ruan will be working harder than ever to ensure an international return.
But what about some of the new talent being given a chance in the green and gold for the first time?
Take Julia Robinson from the Broncos who only started playing rugby league a couple of months before the start of the NRLW competition.
Julia was introduced to the game through her colleagues in the army, Meg Ward and Talesha Quinn, and before she knew it Broncos coach Paul Dyer recommended her to a Brisbane-based team so that she could get in a couple of games before the NRLW started.
After a short season with the Broncos, Julia is now playing rep footy and already very much feels part of the rugby league family.
I’m also exceptionally pleased to see Jessica Sergis from the Dragons being given the opportunity to make her Jillaroos debut.
One of the women that really lit up women’s rugby league this year was Isabelle Kelly.
She scored the match-winning try for the New South Wales Blues in State of Origin and was exceptional for the Roosters – scoring in almost every game she played.
Not to take anything away from the performances of Isabelle, because she has been exceptional, but had Jess not spent most of the season on the sideline as a result of injury, I feel like we would be talking about her in the same way we talk about Isabelle.
Her Dally M Female Player of the Year nomination, her being awarded rookie of the year in the NRLW competition and her selection in this Jillaroos squad is fitting reward for a player who really is only at the start of her career.
The Jillaroos have had the edge over the Kiwi Ferns on most occasions on which they have met in the last two years including at the Auckland Nines last year and in the Test played last May.
But with players like Honey Hireme, Laura Mariu, Kimiora Nati, Teuila Fotu-Moal and Maitua Feterika all lighting up the NRLW competition this year, I have a feeling that we are in for a very close contest.
I’m still tipping the Jillaroos … but to use one of my favourite footy cliches, women’s rugby league will definitely be the winner on the day.