Sustainable growth key to success of the women’s game

This article was first written and published for the Roar.

W

hen you experience something good, your natural reaction to that experience is to want more of it.

That’s certainly what has happened in women’s rugby league. After seeing the quality of the women’s State of Origin at North Sydney Oval last year and the Women’s Rugby League Premiership which started in September, people have been left wanting more.

For the NRLW that led to suggestions of expansion – both in terms of number of teams and additionally the number of games played.

For State of Origin that resulted in calls for a three-game series and a movement away from having the game as a stand-alone fixture and instead seeing it played before the men’s game.

In both circumstances, for this year the NRL have opted to keep the same format.

There will be no additional teams in the NRLW this year and the teams will only play each other once so that the competition aligns with the men’s Finals series and for State of Origin, it remains a one-game stand-alone fixture.

When you consider the point at which women’s rugby league is at the moment, I understand and agree with the NRL’s ‘steady as she goes’ approach.

The key for the NRL is to ensure the sustainability and marketability of the women’s game and their view is to protect the players and ensure that the amount of footy they are playing is manageable, that the state of play should remain as is, for now.

While taking it slow has garnered some criticism, I think the impact of moving too quickly can potentially be greater. Look at the AFLW, where in this season the number of teams expanded, but the number of games that the teams played was reduced.

This led to a conference-based system which many queried and left people disappointed given there were more teams but those teams played less games.

But particularly in relation to State of Origin, while moving from one game to three may not seem like a big deal, it is a big deal for a group of players that need at least one week’s notice prior to going into camp to ensure that their work and family commitments are attended to while they play footy.

This same analogy can be used when talking about extending the NRLW from four weeks to seven weeks; expansion places increased pressure on women already sacrificing a lot to play the sport that they love.

Isabelle Kelly Jillaroos

Isabelle Kelly of the Jillaroos (Photo by Jason McCawley/Getty Images)

Annette Brander has played for the Australian Jillaroos, Queensland Maroons and the St George Illawarra Dragons and can speak directly about those challenges.

Annette is based in Queensland and made the decision to relocate to Sydney for the NRLW to play for the Dragons and stretch herself to play with some new players that would push her to become a better player. But it came at a cost.

“I drove down to Wollongong and I stayed for three months. I had to take three months of unpaid work. It was pretty much just a mini holiday, other than playing and training,” Annette says.

Such sacrifices have been going on in the women’s game for years and these sacrifices need to be considered when calling for even more playing commitments for women.

According to Annette, “in the past there have been girls that lost their jobs because their employers wouldn’t give them time off work. It is hard in that aspect and I think there are a lot of people calling for a three game Origin, but I don’t think we are there yet.

It is a massive sacrifice to take that time off work and a lot of the girls have kids too. It makes it harder when it isn’t your full time job”.

The point becomes even clearer when you compare the set up of men’s Origin compared to the women’s Origin.

“With the men, their team gets announced and then the next day they go into camp. With us we need a few weeks notice so we can sort out work and our families. But it is getting better every year”, says Annette.

Growth will come, but it needs to come at a rate which is sustainable and manageable for the women competing. Additionally, as the NRL have done to date, close consultation with the players remains vital to ongoing success.

Whilst we may still be three weeks out from women’s Origin, expect the teams to be announced shortly. Yesterday, the Harvey Norman Women’s National Championships started with six teams competing.

NSW has fielded country and city side and Queensland has named a country side and South East Queensland team. These four teams will be joined by an Affiliated States side and Australian defence force team.

You can expect the women who will represent NSW and QLD in State of Origin to come out of the teams competing during the National Championships.