The world of women’s rugby league is changing faster and faster all the time. That’s the thing about progress – it’s a path that leads down a hill, so the further things go, the faster they get there.
And women’s rugby league is hurtling down the hill. Friday night will be the last time the State of Origin series is contested in a single match before it expands to two next year.
After three new clubs joined the NRLW for 2022’s first season the league, flush with success, fast-tracked expansion from two new teams for 2023 to four new sides, meaning the competition will have more than doubled in size in less than three years.
Growing Origin is a no-brainer, but flooding the NRLW with new clubs is a more complex discussion, with some of the game’s biggest names split on whether the league is ready for ten teams.
“It’s nearly doubled with what we’ve got at the moment and we’re already struggling to fill up those last few spots on the teams as is,” Newcastle and New South Wales prop Millie Boyle said.
“I know the game is growing, I’m not sure if it’s growing at the pace where they can put in those new teams.”
Boyle, a member of the Rugby League Players Association women’s advisory group, also takes issue with what she believes to be a lack of consultation from the NRL on the viability of such radical expansion.
“We’re on there, but they’re going to make their own decisions. I guess they’ll say we’re whining whatever happens – ‘they say we’re not big enough, they say there’s not enough teams, they say there’s too many’,” Boyle said.
“We’ll never be able to make everyone happy. They make the rules and you can’t grow unless you grow. I thought it would be two teams, but it’s not up to me.
“Four teams will be a big jump, I guess with the new marquee spots and the new CBA we’ll spread girls out again and get them to new areas all over the country, especially down in Canberra and up in North Queensland.”
The NRLW took four years to expand following it’s launch in 2018, a slow-burn approach which ensured there was always enough elite-level talent to fill out the existing teams.
It meant that when the league finally pulled the trigger on growing the game, they were able to spread out enough star players to ensure the new teams were competitive.
Things didn’t work out perfectly – Newcastle were winless in their first campaign – but every other team won at least two games and for the most part, matches were closely fought and competitive.
Providing new avenues and pathways and growing the sport is important, but so is producing a high-quality product on the field. If the quality of play rises, as it did this year, it means better ratings, stronger crowds and increased interest from fans both old and new. It’s easier to sell, which means more people will buy it.
If there is more teams than there is talent there’s a danger of scores blowing out and the competition losing it’s lustre as the snake starts to eat it’s tail.
Given Canberra, Cronulla, North Queensland and Wests Tigers must all find enough players to fill out a competitive roster and given there was a winless side in a six-team league it’s a fair question to ask if that will be possible.
What will help matters is that each of the four clubs has a strong grassroots program – Cronulla and the Tigers have fielded teams in the NSW Women’s Premiership since 2019, the Raiders have a Tarsha Gale Cup (Under 18s) side and the North Queensland Gold Stars , who will likely provide many of the Cowboys players, won the Queensland Women’s Premiership grand final earlier this month.
And, as Blues veteran Sam Bremner points out, if there are more spots available it creates more opportunities for players to fill those spots, which should help grow participation.
Bremner, who has played at the top level of women’s rugby league since 2012 and has witnessed the game’s transformation over the past decade first-hand, knows the old “you can’t be what you can’t see” adage still rings true.
“It is a really big jump, but the best thing that ever happened to women’s rugby league was that we exposed it,” Bremner said.
“I remember going to a school after we won the World Cup and they asked the kids’ hands up if you’ve ever heard of the Jillaroos’ and one boy stood up and said ‘yeah, I know them, they play hockey’.
“From then, we started exposing women’s rugby league and all these girls started playing and I think having more opportunities are going to make girls think it’s possible for them, and then the depth continues to grow.
“It is a really big leap, but I have faith we can fill those spots. It’s an exciting time for women’s rugby league.
“Girls can see us on TV and we say it all the time but it’s true, you can’t be what you can’t see.”
Regardless of how this new round of expansion goes, it’s unlikely the NRLW will be slowing down. The NRL already wants to expand again – South Sydney want in for the 2024 season and Penrith are keen to field a team as soon as possible.
Unless the four new sides are an unmitigated disaster, the game will keep flying down the hill until it either levels out or topples over.
The careful, slow approach is over. Sometimes, if you wait until you’re ready you never get ready at all, and the NRL has decided the future is coming and it’s coming fast.