Mary Konstantopoulos reviews the NRLW season and calls attention to what is needed to support the athletes who have delivered so much already this year.
‘It’s better than lego’.
That’s what Newcastle Knights prop Millie Boyle declared when the Newcastle Knights won their first ever Women’s National Rugby League Premiership title on October 2nd, defeating the Parramatta Eels; but I think the words also suitably describe what has been an exceptional fifth edition of the NRLW.
There were so many exceptional moments throughout the competition, but no doubt that the Knights were the story of the 2022 season. In the club’s first season in 2021, the team did not win a game and finished at the bottom of the ladder. Following some astute off season signings including Millie Boyle, Tamika Upton and Hannah Southwell, the team finished second on the ladder and won their first Grand Final.
But it would be too simplistic just to focus on these signings and not to acknowledge the tremendous talent this Knights team boasted including Caitlan Johnston, Emma Manzelmann, Yasmin Clydesdale and Olivia Higgins.
And then there was Jesse Southwell. Southwell is just 17 years old and had to get special dispensation from the NRL just to compete in the competition. She was the standout halfback through the season and what impressed me most was how much trust and confidence her team placed in her.
Southwell is a sign of the future and what the next generation of talent will look like; a generation that has had the benefit of a complete pathway and the opportunity to play rugby league from a young age.
Despite being beaten in the Grand Final, the Eels were also quite the story too. After a heavy defeat at the hands of the reigning Premiers, the Sydney Roosters in Round 1, Eels coach Dean Widders made the big decision to change his halves pairing. Tayla Preston and Ash Quinlan may not have known each other before their time at Parramatta, but they certainly formed a formidable combination.
While most highlight the fact that Parramatta made the finals after only winning one game (their Round 5 fixture against the Brisbane Broncos), this is also simplistic, given that apart from the game against the Roosters, the Eels highest losing margin was just six points.
The Eels had several players who impressed including Gayle Broughton, Kennedy Cherrington and inspirational captain Simaima Taufa.
Then there was the team that the Eels beat to make the Grand Final, the undefeated Sydney Roosters. You can talk about the talent of this team like Jessica Sergis, Sarah Togatuki and Sam Bremner, but the highlight for me was watching Isabelle Kelly grow as a leader and become more outspoken about key issues facing players including the importance of developing a pregnancy policy.
The St George Illawarra Dragons were denied an opportunity to play in a consecutive Grand Final by the Sydney Roosters and for the very first time, the Brisbane Broncos missed out on playing finals footy altogether alongside the Gold Coast Titans.
But while we have plenty to celebrate from the most recent season, there is still plenty of work to do.
In 2023 the competition expands from six teams to 10, with the inclusion of the Canberra Raiders, North Queensland Cowboys, Wests Tigers and Cronulla Sharks.
As exciting as expansion is, it also requires the governing body to ensure that our players are given the appropriate support on and off the field to enable them to succeed.
Currently, the NRL and the Rugby League Players Association are in negotiations about a new Collective Bargaining Agreement. My hope is that this new CBA will include a substantial pay increase for the players, especially given that the 2023 season will be almost double the length of the 2022 season.
Since the conclusion of the NRLW season, Brad Donald has also named his Australian Jillaroos squad which will compete in the Rugby League World Cup in the United Kingdom in November.
But what is still unclear, is how much these women will be paid while on tour.
Boyle has already withdrawn from the World Cup to focus on her business. But it’s unclear to me how we can expect athletes to be making decisions about time away from work and family without understanding how they will be compensated.
To be in this situation just a couple of weeks out from the Jillaroos leaving is baffling, particularly given that because two seasons of the NRLW took place this year and a State of Origin series, many of these women have had to take plenty of time off work already.
There has been some reports of a pay increase for the Jillaroos, but nothing confirmed at the time of publication. If the reports of an increase are true, that is welcome news, however, the uncertainty and timing of securing this information so close to an international tournament is pressure we should expect our athletes to endure.
As the standard of play continues to excel, I want to see pay and conditions excel too. Because at the moment, it does not seem fair to me to continue to ask women to put themselves in positions of financial insecurity, just because we like watching them play rugby league.