This article was first published for NRL.com.
New faces, new coaches and a new level of professionalism will ensure the NRLW raises the bar on a memorable debut season in 2018.
This year has already been a great one for the women’s game.
We saw more than 10,000 people pack into North Sydney Oval to take in the magic of State of Origin. There was also the announcement of a women’s tournament at the World Nines and the launch of year two of the NRLW.
Now we get down to business, starting on Saturday in Melbourne when the Roosters meet the Warriors. Then on Sunday the Dragons face the Broncos at Bankwest Stadium. Both games are curtain-raisers for NRL finals.
I’ve been asked many times for my premiership tip and it’s a tough one to answer because the squads have changed dramatically and there are some new faces ready to take the NRLW by storm.
Forced to stick my neck out I would say it’s Kezie Apps’ Dragons who will emerge victorious on grand final day at ANZ Stadium.
The best way to describe the Dragons squad as “red-hot”.
They have lured several key players from the Broncos and Roosters, including playmaker Maddie Studdon and the player of the match from last year’s grand final Kimiora Nati.
Much will depend on how quickly their combinations come together because you don’t have long to get it right in a four-week competition but they are well coached and will be well led by Apps.
Defending champs Brisbane will be tough to beat again.
This is the club that didn’t lose a game on their way to the title last year and conceded a miserly six points per game.
You could argue that the loss of Brittany Breayley, Teuila Fotu-Moala, Ngatokotoru Arakua and Maitua Feterika will hurt them but the Broncos have identified the next generation of women coming through.
Dual-code representative Millie Boyle, Kiwi Ferns halfback Raecene McGregor and touch footy representatives Tarryn Aiken and Tamika Upton headline that list.The Broncos also have a new coach in Kelvin Wright.
Another team with a new mentor is the Sydney Roosters, luring former Newcastle Knights coach Rick Stone to the Tricolours.
Plenty of people expected big things from the Roosters last year and even though they reached the grand final they only won one game en route to the decider. No doubt the squad will be looking to improve on that record this year.
There are plenty of fresh faces in this squad including Origin star Kirra Dibb, New Zealand international Kiana Takairangi and Maroons player Tallisha Harden.
The Warriors come into 2019 as the dark horse.
Many of us here in Australia have the privilege of knowing plenty about the women playing for the Australian teams but have less knowledge about the women from New Zealand.
One thing we do know is that the Warriors have a good mix of superstars and new faces.
Among their 12 newcomers are Fijian internationals Roela Radiniyavuni and Timaima Ravisa as well as former rugby union players Jules Newman, Kanyon Paul and Tyler Reid.
What will be special for the Warriors this year will be the chance to host a game at Mt Smart Stadium for the first time in round two.
When you watch the NRLW it’s worth keeping a couple of things in mind.
Many of you will love what you see and will ask why the competition doesn’t go for longer.
For many of these women, the NRLW represents the end of a long season. They are coming off the back of playing in their various state competitions.
While our men also have long seasons, what sets these women apart is that they are not full-time professional athletes and are still juggling work, family and study whilst they compete at all levels of the game.
Player welfare is an important consideration and at all times the sustainability of the competition needs to be managed alongside that.
Extending the competition also has a very real impact for those who need to relocate so they can be part of NRLW.
Brittany Breayley is a good example. She played for the Broncos last year but has relocated to Sydney for this year’s NRLW to play with the Dragons. For those six weeks, Brittany has left her job, home, family and friends to relocate.
My experience with the NRLW last year was that fans were overwhelmingly positive. I challenge all of you to maintain that positivity heading into this year.