This article was first written for and published by NRL.com.
If you asked me my highlight of the 2018 rugby league season, without hesitation I would say the inaugural Women’s State of Origin at North Sydney Oval.
For those who have followed the women’s game for so long, it was a watershed moment.
For the pioneers of the women’s game, it was a moment they never thought would come.
There were just under 7000 people in attendance and they were treated to a quality match with bone-rattling hits (cue Simaima Taufa), spectacular tries (cue Isabelle Kelly) and a tight game which NSW won by four points.
Then amongst the madness of the celebration for the Blues and the commiserations for Queensland the fans stormed the field and had the opportunity to celebrate with the rest of their rugby league family.
Fast forward 12 months and we are just two sleeps away from this year’s fixture and the opportunity for all of us to make sure that this year’s occasion is even better than 2018.
And I have no doubt it will be.
When you look at the squads, there are plenty of new faces. There are seven debutants in the NSW side and four for Queensland. In the NSW side, there are only eight women returning from last year.
Some are unavailable due to pregnancy like Samantha Bremner, Nakia Davis-Welsh and Taleena Simon, but other women like Ruan Sims, Rebecca Young and Elliana Walton were not selected.
In some ways it will be sad to see these women not taking part, but it’s exciting to hear the stories of our debutants. Like Kira Dibb, who wasn’t at the game last year because she was overseas and only took rugby league up again this year after she saw the growth in the women’s game.
Then there’s Stephanie Mooka, who has been on the cusp of selection for the last six years but hasn’t quite made it because she couldn’t afford to come into camp or she couldn’t take time away from her job.
And Shontelle Stowers, who has overcome at least three serious injuries to play this Friday night.
But there’s plenty more happening, too.
So often when we talk about next steps in the women’s game, the assumption is always that we should be doing more – whether it be playing more games in the Origin series, introducing more teams in the NRLW or giving the women the opportunity to play in front of bigger audiences at larger grounds.
But the key for the NRL is sustainable growth and developing a pathway to ensure that success continues for many years.
That’s why I was so pleased to hear that an under 18’s women’s State of Origin fixture will be played as a curtain-raiser at North Sydney.
If you have a look at the teams, they are clear evidence that the pathways are working.
For NSW, the squad includes 10 players from Tarsha Gale premiers the Illawarra Steelers, including player of the series Maddison Weatherall and three players from beaten grand finalists Newcastle.
Additionally other women in this team like Sophie and Emily Curtain have graduated from the Tarsha Gale competition and are now playing in the Harvey Norman Women’s Premiership.
For Queensland, this squad is reflective of the work done in developing female rugby league talent. This started in 2017 with the under 15s emerging Origin camp. Many of the players selected were part of this program and have also come through the QRL’s pathway program.
No doubt many of these women will be playing in the main game in the next couple of years.
I remember standing on the hill at North Sydney Oval during the last 10 minutes of last year’s game as the crowd began to chant ‘New South Wales, New South Wales’.
This is the part where all of you come in.
Last year’s Women’s State of Origin was played in front of over 6800 people and to a national audience eclipsing 750,000.
If you are in Sydney and can be there on Friday night, we need you and your voice.
Last year, when the Blues arrived on their team bus at North Sydney Oval, they were told that there may be some people waiting to greet them.
When Talesha Quinn got off the bus and saw a couple of hundred people waiting she had to stop and think about what else may have been happening in the North Sydney area that night. Then the penny dropped and she realised that all the people were there for her team.
Let’s surprise them again this year and make sure that shield stays in New South Wales.