‘Cancelling the competition is not an option’: Crunch time for the NRLW

This article was first written for and published by the Roar

I certainly wouldn’t want to be a sports administrator right now.

Given the opening and closing of borders, it is becoming increasingly difficult to host competitions and find safe locations to play games.

Players, coaches, staff and family almost need to be ready to relocate at the drop of a hat.

Apart from the logistical nightmare that the pandemic has created, there will no doubt be other implications, particularly to players and their mental health.

Some players have been forced to move state and others move countries in order for competitions to continue. Families have been separated and relocated, with a lingering sense of uncertainty being the common theme.

In the NRL, there has been significant disruption to the men’s competition, but the challenges become even greater for the upcoming women’s premiership, which is scheduled to start on the first weekend of October and continue into November.

The reality is that hosting the NRLW comes with greater risk than continuing the NRL, because while the women are certainly elite athletes, at the moment they are not full-time, professional athletes.

When the threat of COVID-19 rears its ugly head, the decision to restrict player movement is much easier in the men’s competition. Of course it’s still difficult – in a world where players are encouraged to have interests outside of footy, it’s devastating to take that away and force them to be in and around football day in, day out.

But restrictions on movement cannot happen for our women without a severe impact on their livelihoods.

Most of the women competing in the NRLW have jobs, some have families to care for or studies that cannot be walked away from.

Because competing in the NRLW is not a full-time job, it’s difficult to restrict player movement in the community, because players still have these other commitments.

At this stage, I continue to wonder how achievable the October start date is.

NRLW Roosters Warriors

(Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

Most women are training on their own at the moment. Teams have certainly not had the opportunity to meet together in person yet, with any meetings happening online. It’s such a shame that some introductions to the NRLW will happen on Zoom.

Training is due to commence in a couple of weeks, but should that be pushed back – resulting in a cut to the amount of time the teams have to come together – the quality of the competition may be compromised.

For many of the women competing in the NRLW, their last taste of footy will have been their respective state leagues or State of Origin, competitions and fixtures that happened months ago.

In recent weeks, we’ve seen war erupt in regards to the Rugby League World Cup, with the NRL pre-season being sacrosanct. It is even more needed in the women’s competition where players have had even less opportunity to play.

So what are the options?

Should the competition progress in October, one solution may be to move the two Queensland teams to New South Wales to operate in as much of a bubble as possible, with frequent testing.

While it would be less risky to move the NSW-based players north, there are more of them.

Earlier in the year, Peter V’landys spoke about the importance of talent equalisation and asked the players to “look at the big picture and make a sacrifice”.

A move by the Queensland-based players to NSW would be a significant commitment, particularly when you consider how much the players are paid. It would be another example of our current pioneers making sacrifices for the women’s game to be the best it can be.

What is clear is that cancelling the competition is not an option.

I have heard consistently that the NRL are deeply committed to ensuring that the competition goes ahead.

And they must be.

There has been plenty of discussion about limited opportunities for male players competing in NSW and Queensland Cups, with many not having had the opportunity to train along the first-grade sides. It is still unclear what impact the lack of footy will have on the pathway and the next generation of players coming through.

The same is true of our women.

The game is in a growth phase. We are beginning to see evidence of the pathways working and it is extremely important that these women have an opportunity to play against each other in the best domestic rugby league competition in the world.

With the Rugby League World Cup to be held next year, we can’t leave women’s footy stranded.

I certainly wouldn’t want to be an administrator right now, but some more clarity on the NRLW is needed soon. October is not too far away and the teams are ready to begin pre-season training.