Tiana thrilled to see NRLW kicking on towards professional era

This article was first written for and published by NRL.com

Playing at Bankwest Stadium, learning from legends Brad Fittler and Andrew Johns at training, Tiana Penitani is thrilled with the way women’s rugby league is moving into a professional era.

Penitani and her City teammates went into camp on Wednesday to prepare for their clash against Country on Saturday at Bankwest Stadium.

This is the first camp that Penitani has been involved in since last year’s Ampol State of Origin clash and it’s certainly a little bit different.

“We had two sessions on Wednesday and one of those sessions was skills in the morning with Andrew Johns and Brad Fittler, which was unreal,” she said.

“There was a chance to learn from them and do some of the things we don’t normally do with our club training and focus on the little things, the one-percenters that make a real difference.”

It wouldn’t be a session with Fittler without some earthing too.

“Once we finished training, everyone had their boots and socks off and we did a lap around the field together.”

Penitani has also had the opportunity to work with a new coach in Lisa Fiaola.

In her own right, Fiaola is a game-changer when it comes to women’s rugby league, so much so that the under 16s competition is named in her honour.

“It’s the first time I have met her, but I’m really looking forward to seeing what she brings as a coach and playing under her,” Penitani said.

Tiana Penitani scores against the Roosters.
Tiana Penitani scores against the Roosters.©Keegan Carroll/NRL Photos

“I like her approach. She is all about gratitude and making sure that the older women make the younger women feel comfortable and instilling self-belief in each other.”

Another exciting opportunity for this fixture is the chance to play it at Bankwest. Often in conversations about the importance of professionalisation in the women’s game, something that is forgotten is the value in playing at established grounds.

For elite players like Penitani, it makes a difference.

“It’s my favourite stadium to play in,” she said.

“Whenever we perform in big stadiums and in better facilities, we play better. Even though it’s just a field, a quality facility is so different to some of the local fields we play at.

“I love the way Bankwest is designed. It keeps all the noise in and you get that electric stadium feel which makes a big difference to performance.”

Penitani is one of the success stories of the women’s game but she experienced success before establishing herself as a top-flight rugby league player. At 17 years and 163 days, she became Australia’s youngest rugby sevens representative.

In the league representative ranks, Penitani represented NSW City at the Women’s National Championships in 2019.

Penitani progressed from there to play for St George Illawarra in the NRLW, the NSW Blues and the Australian Jillaroos.

The National Championships will take place in Redcliffe next week and for Penitani, who took the opportunity offered at the event, it is an important part of the women’s pathway.

“The National Championships are an awesome stepping stone for women from other sports and women from other states that are trying to break into the NRLW,” Penitani said.

“It is where we can give women an opportunity to make the transition into the top grades and because there is more than one game, it gives women more than one chance to perform.”

Also giving Penitani plenty of cause for optimism is the potential for expanding the number of teams and games in the NRLW, possibly this year.

We make sacrifices now just like the women in our game did before us.

Tiani Penitani

“If the NRL keep moving at the pace they are moving, we will be able to maintain a really high level of quality football,” she said.

“By starting small and gradually building, that means in a few years we will have more women who have come through the under 16s and the Tarsha Gale competition ready to play in the NRLW.”

In her eyes, hopefully expansion will help the women’s game shift towards the top 30 players being full-time professionals.

Given her background in sevens rugby, and the participation of players like Charlotte Caslick and Ellia Green in the NRLW last year, she has seen the benefit of those sevens players have enjoyed from being full-time athletes.

“The sevens women have been in full-time training for a long time and the level of athleticism they bring to the table shows what full time strength and conditioning and a full-time centralised program can do for female athletes.”

“This is what we should be striving for. The footy we produce right now is so exciting and we produce that while most of us are studying or working full-time. Imagine what a competition could look like in years to come, there is so much opportunity to grow.”

At the back of her mind is the constant reminder of the difference they can make for the next generation.

“That’s what we remind ourselves of all the time. To be able to have an impact on women’s sport and be part of a trailblazing community is so special for me.

“We make sacrifices now just like the women in our game did before us and I know the way the culture is in our sport that there will always be that recognition and appreciation for past players.”