It might have been a short season, but it wasn’t without its hard hits, speed and incredible skill. It’s time for our NRLW season review.
This year’s NRLW competition was the season that almost didn’t happen.
Like so many codes in this bizarre year, the fate of the women’s competition was clouded with a question mark until, finally, the season was announced as going ahead. It wasn’t exactly what fans had hoped for prior to the pandemic—the fixture would remain at three rounds rather than the rumoured six, with the Grand Final to be played as a double-header with the men instead of a standalone match. The four clubs scrambled to lock in contracts when the short signing period began in September, with players dropping everything to live in a bubble and get the chance to hit the paddock for the competition’s third year.
Of course, this wasn’t possible for everyone. For the New Zealand Warriors, committing to the season meant a last-minute move to another country. Five of the Warriors were able to cross the ditch and join the blended team coached by Brad Donald, head coach of the Jillaroos. Other teams battled with similar hurdles, with some key players unable to commit to the demands of life in the bubble as part-time athletes.
But despite the odds being stacked against them, the four teams showed up and showed out this season, giving the people what they wanted: good, passionate rugby. Even when you put aside the immense sacrifices made by the players and the financial constraints of the NRL, what remains is a competition exploding with talent that only gets better every year; and, though no one would have blamed them given the short notice and even shorter pre-season, this year was certainly no exception.
The Warriors were perhaps the wildcards of the season based on their mash-up of players who had very little experience playing with each other let alone as a unit. Despite this, they came in swinging and ended up beating last year’s premiership rivals, the St George Illawarra Dragons, in a convincing 22-10 win for the third spot.
While the Dragons may have not had the season they hoped for based on their success in 2019, they battled against ongoing injury week after week and proved themselves as the scrappiest team in the competition. Round Two was particularly tough on the Dragons, with both skipper Kezie Apps and centre Isabelle Kelly joining the ever-growing list of ruled out players after experiencing season-ending injuries. Nonetheless, the remaining sixteen Dragons continued into round three with grit and graciousness despite the challenging season.
The Grand Final came down to a showdown between two-time premiers Brisbane Broncos and the hungry Sydney Roosters, who had seen a huge turnaround from their winless 2019 season. The Roosters had undergone quite the shake-up thanks to new coach Jamie Feeney, with the introduction of new and returning players making all the difference this season. However, despite amazing efforts from the Roosters camp, the Broncos proved themselves unstoppable after finishing the season with zero losses and a convincing three-peat. Led by this year’s Dally M award recipient and seasoned league veteran Ali Brigginshaw, the Broncos utilised speed, strength and game sense at every crucial moment across the competition to continuously come out on top.
So, who stood out this season?
As a rugby sevens fangirl through and through, I was so excited to see the introduction of several sevens players into the league mix. Reflecting on the season, it is safe to say they did not disappoint. Prior to spinal fractures ending her season prematurely, sevens royalty Charlotte Caslick made herself known for the Roosters early, moving from five-eighth to the centres and then into fullback with ease after Botille Vette-Walsh suffered a hamstring injury early in round one. The speed and balance of sevens players worked to the advantage of several teams, with ‘rugby’s fastest woman’ Ellia Green and the equally fierce Evania Pelite making waves for the Warriors. In fact, Evania Pelite’s debut was so outstanding she found herself nominated for both the Dally M Female Player of the Year award and The Players Champion as well as taking out the Warriors NRLW Player of the Year. Pretty incredible stuff for your rookie year.
Of course, the skills displayed by the more seasoned rugby league players were equally as impressive, and I have truly had to resist the urge to just list… everyone. Amber Hall, AKA the Wrecking Ball, was possibly my favourite player to watch this season. The prop from the Brisbane Broncos is arguably the most powerful tackle buster in the game, with enormous hits and ball skills to boot. Her try in the first half of the Grand Final was a classic example of the sheer force behind her runs that lead to the three-player tackles made to (sometimes) bring her down, and the Karyn Murphy medal for Player of the Match felt every bit deserved.
Again from the Broncos camp is Tamika Upton, who is essentially the opposite type of player to Amber Hall. While she is certainly powerful in her own right, Tamika stunned as fullback with her ability to create space and make fast metres with her unique running style. Her touch background shines in attack, but she is clearly a gifted athlete all-round with a relatively high tackle efficiency in defence. One of my absolute highlights this season was her hat-trick in the first half of the Round One match up against the Warriors—what a way to start a season!
Aside from the sevens girls, there are some rookie players that should be on everyone’s radars.
Eighteen-year-old Jaime Chapman debuted with the Dragons after coming up through the club system with Cronulla and shining in the under-18s women’s Origin match in 2019. She made metres this season as a winger and continues to impress with her incredible speed. Given her age and the level of skill she has already established, Jaime is absolutely one to watch for future NRLW seasons.
If we’re talking rookies, we cannot forget Kennedy Cherrington. The twenty-one-year-old came from a rugby union background but dominated in the forward pack for the Roosters, resulting in the much-deserved title of this season’s Rookie of the Year. Kennedy’s win means she follows in the footsteps of fellow Dragons teammate and household name Jess Sergis, and I have no doubt she will live up to the hype.
So there we have it—another season of NRLW finished in what feels like the blink of an eye, but this one somehow feels different. Maybe it was the fusion of union and league to enrich the player pool of the competition, or the fact that the Broncos may have still won but not without the entire competition fighting back. Earlier in the season, rugby league great Ruan Sims wrote a thoughtful piece for the Sydney Morning Herald on how the NRLW might be able to hold onto the highly-coveted sevens players of this season. She suggests that the answer is not to proposition individual players but rather to cultivate a competition that offers real employment for the athletes involved. This sentiment is particularly relevant to sevens players given they are typically contracted full-time due to the world circuit and Olympics, but it has much wider implications for the NRLW as a whole.
If clear pathways existed and full-time contracts were the norm, the quality of an already incredible competition would skyrocket. Are these lofty expectations for a competition only in its infancy? Sure. But the answer is certainly not to stop moving forward. In the most trying of circumstances, the 2020 NRLW season went ahead and it was fantastic. While the effects of COVID-19 will no doubt linger, I can’t help but see this year’s triumph as hope-fuel for 2021.
More teams. Longer seasons. Care, time and money put into the amazing athletes that make it all possible. All of these factors combined will undoubtedly lead to establishing what Ruan envisions as a “competition (you) simply can’t ignore”.
Either way, consider me hooked.