The 2020 NRLW season kicks off this weekend and expert Mary Konstantopoulos previews each team as we enter the third season of this exciting competition.
At the start of the year there was certainly some anxiety about whether there would be a third season of the Telstra Women’s Premiership. With sport suspended and many sports making challenging financial decisions, there was fear that the women’s game wasn’t front of mind.
But since June, when the NRL confirmed the season would proceed, it has been full steam ahead to ensure player safety and access to support was made available to athletes ahead of a season that would be like no other.
With two games back-to-back on Saturday, I encourage everyone to tune in because, while there has been plenty of praise for male athletes and the challenges they have faced this year, our women are equally, if not more impressive.
Let’s see how the teams look ahead of the competition’s commencement this weekend.
St George Illawarra Dragons
After having a year away from rugby league to give birth to baby Reef, Samantha Bremner returns for Dragons this season along with plenty of other fan favourites like Kezie Apps, Jess Sergis, Maddie Studdon and Tiana Penitani.
But there are some fresh faces too. Isabelle Kelly joins from the Sydney Roosters as does veteran Jillaroo Steph Hancock. But most exciting is the signing of Elsie Albert, who is the first Papua New Guinea Orchid to play in the NRLW.
Considering the Orchids only played their first international game in 2017, this is very exciting for the growth of the women’s game internationally. Albert considers Hancock a mentor and the pair are astute signings given the Dragons have lost Kiwi Ferns Teuila Fotu-Moala and Maitua Feterika.
One other player to watch is Holli Wheeler. But you won’t find her on the field. Wheeler suffered a serious ACL injury at the start of the year and will be part of a star-studded Dragons coaching staff which includes NSW Women’s State of Origin coach, Andy Patmore. We need more women in coaching, and this is a great opportunity for Wheeler to remain close to the team, even though she won’t take the field.
As the reigning champions, the Broncos will be striving for a three-peat this year. After winning the first two seasons of the NRLW, the Broncos have a well-earned reputation as the team to beat.
But plenty has changed.
While the Broncos have managed to retain key talent including Australian Jillaroos captain Ali Brigginshaw, Millie Boyle, Chelsea Lenarduzzi and Meg Ward, the squad will certainly miss the experience of Heather Ballinger who has retired and Chelsea Baker and Rona Peters who have made the difficult decision not to compete this year due to family commitments.
Baker and Rona are not the only women that have made this decision. With players required to operate in a ‘bubble’, although one that I understand, is slightly looser than that of the male players, it is a big ask to require players to put their lives on hold for a competition that will last no longer than five weeks.
One player to watch for the Broncos is Tallisha Harden who comes to the Broncos from the Roosters, where she was named Player of the Year in 2019. Given the loss of Steph Hancock and Ballinger, she will have plenty of responsibility in the forward pack.
There’s one signing for the Roosters everyone is talking about and that’s Charlotte Caslick. Whilst Caslick is one of Australia’s best female athletes and joins the NRLW from the gold-medal winning Aussie 7s team, there’s another signing that I think will be just as important.
The Roosters, in my view, have underperformed in the first two seasons of the NRLW. But I think that trend stops this year because the Roosters have a new coach in Jamie Feeney. Behind Brad Donald, there are few with as much understanding and strategic insight into the women’s game.
Much has been made of the Aussie 7s women, but one other player to watch is Grace Hamilton who is captain of the Australian Wallaroos. I’m keen to see how she transitions from rugby union to rugby league and the Roosters will look to her leadership up front, especially after the retirement of Ruan Sims and the departure of Harden.
There is plenty of star power in this team including the likes of Corban McGregor, Simaima Taufa and Vanessa Foliaki.
The Roosters have also snared Botille Vette-Welsh from the Dragons as she makes way for Bremner to return. Vette-Welsh had a breakout season in the Harvey Norman Women’s Premiership last year and played for the Jillaroos at the end of last year. She has continued her outstanding form this year and will be looking to impress at her new club.
New Zealand Warriors
I have a feeling that the Warriors will steal our hearts this year.
Unfortunately, many from their 2019 squad made the decision not to come to Australia to compete in the NRLW. With a two-week quarantine required in Australia and then another two-week quarantine required when the team return to New Zealand, it was too much time away from family and work for many of the players.
But despite coming across with only five players, the Warriors had a secret weapon. Australian Jillaroos coach, Brad Donald is taking a caretaker role for the team whilst they are in Australia. This is a touching example of the care the NRL is taking with the competition this year. There is no more experienced coach in the women’s space than Donald and he has a unique understanding of the challenges facing these women.
He also has contacts and has assembled, in my view, the best squad in the competition.
Kirra Dibb joins the Warriors from the Roosters and will likely partner with Georgia Hale in the halves. Other new faces include Jillaroos veteran Karina Brown and Shontelle Stowers.
The Warriors will also be bolstered by the speed of Aussie 7s superstar Ellia Greene, bringing renewed anticipation and interest.