Sneak Peek Into the NRL’s White Paper on the Women’s Game
By Sam Squiers
Sports are all about competition and no code likes to be outplayed, but with the rapid rise of the women’s professional leagues in the AFL, Cricket and Netball, the NRL is in severe danger of being left behind.
While the Jillaroos (the National Women’s Rugby League Team) are growing in popularity and have experienced increased exposure in recent years by playing televised double headers at the Auckland Nines, ANZAC Test and All Stars, there’s still no definitive timeline or plan for a National Women’s Competition.
To find out where the NRL stands with the women’s game and what it has envisaged for its growing base of female players, Sportette Editor Sam Squiers spoke one-on-one with NRL CEO Todd Greenberg.
NATIONAL WOMEN’S COMPETITION
Within the next six months the NRL wants to have a white paper on the future of the women’s game finalised. A National Competition is what it’s striving towards and over this year the aim is to be able to place a date on its long awaited launch.
Listen to Jillaroos Captain Ruan Sims as she talks to Sam Squiers on “In Her Court”
In the meantime, the NRL’s focus is purely on grassroots, setting the foundations of the women’s game to ensure the elite level’s sustainability and viability.
“We’re trying to build from the bottom up not the top down and we’ve got to make sure those pathways are sustainable.” Todd Greenberg told Sportette.
“It would be easy in some respects to just go and do four matches and mirror the NRL comp and we might get some flashy headlines but to be honest it’s got to have much more gravity than that and it’s got to have some more sustainability otherwise all we’ll have is a comp for a short amount of time but there will be no legacy.”
“So my focus has got to be building from the bottom up, getting the states to have really engaged and strong women participation pathways right the way through and then when we get that part right we’ll turn our attention to what potentially a national comp looks like.”
While the NRL has the right idea in its approach, growing the elite side of the game and the grassroots can be mutually linked. In 2010, the AFL commissioned a report into the state of the women’s game which recommended the establishment of a national professional competition. 2020 was initially the timeline the AFL set for its launch but this was brought forward to 2017 following the success of a number of exhibition matches and the growing strength of the women’s game around the country.
Each year since the AFL announced plans for the competition, the game has experienced strong growth in participation numbers of female players at a grass roots level. In the past decade female participation has grown a whopping 790%. In 2016, females accounted for 27% of all AFL participants, in 2014 it was 19%. Last year alone saw a 21% increase in the number of girls involved in the Auskick program and this is all before the first ball had been bounced in the AFLW.
By announcing its plans for its elite footballers, the AFL was able to have a direct influence on the growth of its grassroots participants. While the NRL is focussed on making its grassroots systems sustainable first before outlining an elite framework, the AFL has proven the two can work hand in hand.
“That’s exactly the work that’s been undertaken now so I can come and say to you with my hand on my heart and say our goal or our aspiration is to do X by this timeline.” Greenberg said when this was put to him.
“I reckon we’ll get to the end of this year and we’ll have a very defined white paper of what the future of women’s rugby league looks like and how we actually intend to do two things one resource it and two fund it.”
WAS THE SUCCESS OF THE AFLW A WAKE UP CALL?
In its inaugural year the AFLW blew all expectations out of the park. The opening game saw tens of thousands of fans locked out of the ground because it was already at capacity. The matches were broadcast with strong ratings and the game provided non-stop headlines in media outlets as well as being the subject of water cooler conversations at workplaces around the country.
“I was actually pleased that the numbers were strong and the crowds were good and the interest was good because for me what it does is actually again confirms that the direction that we’re going and the work we’re doing is actually the right thing to do for rugby league and for women in sport across all sports.” Greenberg said.
“Whether it was watching the cricket over summer or the AFL, I think it just again solidified our view that we have a future in this space and that’s why the numbers and participation are growing that’s why our focus is growing so again for me it just clarified we’re on the right path.”
As for whether it expedited the NRL’s plans for its women’s game though:
“Oh look I think we’re going as fast as we can anyway certainly didn’t slow it down at all we’re just going to keep our foot on the gas and we should.”
The Cronulla Sharks took a huge step last year becoming the first club to sign female players on its books. Jillaroos captain was the first player to sign with the club and other Jillaroos, Maddie Studdon, Allana Ferguson and Corban McGregor have also followed.
The contract gives the girls access to the clubs facilities and specialists and the team will play a series of six exhibition matches against other female teams before NRL matches this year.
It’s not so much a breakaway competition but more Cronulla taking the initiative to back a women’s competition. The club has even signed front and back of jersey sponsors.
“I’m certainly supportive of the Sharks putting females on the big stage and profiling and branding and those sorts of things,” Greenberg told Sportette.
“But again the main question is you want to make sure it’s sustainable you want to make sure once you start it it gets bigger and better and you’ve got systems and processes in place to make sure that’s the case and that’s really important.”
So could a similar model, whereby existing NRL clubs sign female players for a proposed national competition be the right way to go about setting it up?
“Yeah absolutely we’d be open to doing all those things. A lot of the clubs are so different in how they’re structured and they’re community based and all those sorts of things.”
”I think the Sharks, Eels and Panthers have great ownership of their junior leagues so that gives them the ability to run competitions whether it’s females or others but there are other areas who probably don’t have that luxury to do things that way but where there are possibilities then absolutely we’d be supportive of it.”
WOMEN’S STATE OF ORIGIN
There’s been a women’s state of origin held every year since 1999 between Queensland and New South Wales yet it’s not called Origin, it’s called the Women’s Interstate Challenge. It’s not a best of three series either, it’s just the one game. It’s also not played during Origin, but rather as a separate match which in the last two years has served as a curtain-raiser to an NRL regular season match.
All this the NRL says should be earmarked for change.
“That’s a good question,” Greenberg said when asked why it’s still not called Origin or played during the men’s State of Origin period.
“I’m not sure if I have a good answer other than that’s what history has always been, we’ve played origins one two and three with the 16s, 18s and 20s (all these as curtain raisers on Origin nights) that’s just like a lot of things that happen here the historical nature of how it’s been done year on year but there’s nothing to suggest that we wouldn’t look at that. I assume that will form part of our thinking as we form part of our document.”
“I think origin is so synonymous with the brand it would make sense” (to change the name from “Interstate Challenge”)
WOMEN’S DALLY M AWARD
The NRL introduced a women’s Dally M Award in 2015 but it remains the only honour for female players on league’s night of nights. The impending white paper is also set to address this issue.
“We showed our hand at that last year and the year before for the first time with a female award and as you’d probably know in Rugby League, with 108 years of history, the first time we did it it was a big step. But you’re right to ask the question is it going to be one award or multiple awards? Can you have an origin award? can you have other awards that showcase the game? and the short answer is absolutely we can.” Greenberg told Sportette.
“History tells you that the Dally M Awards is the culmination of the NRL competition but that’s not to say it’s a celebration of the broader game as well and I think we’ve shown our hand that we’re prepared to change things so I think it’s a fair question.”
Cricket and Soccer combine their women’s and men’s awards in the same ceremony with the name of the women’s award honouring a former player of the game. It’s a move that could also be mirrored by the NRL.
“We could certainly look at changing it to the Karyn Murphy medal or one of the great pioneers of rugby league earlier than that. I don’t have the right answer for you but we’re absolutely open to those sorts of things.”
Simply: Watch this space.