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PREVIEW: NRLW 2023
A shallow dive into the new NRLW season wherein we find the Broncos are old, the Cowboys are young and the Titans are good (on paper)
The Women’s Premiership
The tumult of player transfers, as we welcome a more professional system of salary caps, minimum wages and multi-year contracts, has been difficult to follow. As in 2021*, when the league expanded by 50%, most established teams will be kicking off round 1 with new identities. The rest will be brand new entities.
The risk for the NRLW, in its inaugural year with a ten team configuration, is that expansion has come too quickly. I had my doubts the league would be able to cope with four new teams and while I’m naturally more familiar with the Queenslanders, it’s clear that everyone who has a place in this league has the skillset to justify it. There may be the inexperienced, the overawed and approximately 50% of players will be below league-average, but they’ve earned their contracts at the elite level.
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The first NRLW competition was in 2018. Then 13-year-old girls that watched the Broncos win the first title are now 18 and they’ve had the benefit of complete pathways from junior to elite. They’re the youthful vanguard that is revolutionising this league and rapidly pushing the old guard into the background, if not outright retirement. As in 2021*, the overall quality may well improve on last year, despite the surfeit of contracts that have become available.
All of which is to say that it will be very difficult to predict what is going to happen this season. The only certainty is that players you’d never heard of two weeks ago will be stars of the game by October. Results won’t be solely decided by names on paper but will reflect the ability of the coach to form a cohesive team and to do so quickly, as there is far less time for clubs to find their feet in the NRLW than the NRLM. In previous season, a one win team could slip into the finals but a top four finish in a ten team league is a far higher bar to clear.
The length of the season will be a new challenge, although the elite women admirably handled two part-time seasons, a state cup campaign and a World Cup in 2022. Due to the calendar structure of 2023, there is no reserve grade competition. Fringe players won’t have the opportunity to maintain match fitness, so any club with an injury crisis - something that might last more than a week or two now the season is nine rounds long - will be double punished by losing their best players and the next best won’t be in the kind of battle hardened shape that a call up from the Queensland Cup would be.
Should any of the hacks pay attention to women’s football, this will undoubtedly be used as evidence that the game expanded too fast and men’s football is subsidising sub-standard players. This is patently not the case.
Based on the round 1 line-ups, I’ve graded each team on a scale of zero to five stars, but actually only handed out ratings from one to four stars. I suppose you could interpret this as a confidence rating: I’m 80% confident the four stars will be good, 60% for the three stars and so on down to 20% for the one star.
It’s hard to review these teams without overlaying the front office stereotypes of their NRLM counterparts. Watching whether any of these women's teams develop distinct operational identities from the men's version will be one of the more fascinating sub-plots of the NRLW into the future.
My challenge to the Broncos at the end of last year was to take the NRLW more seriously. Instead of resting on the three mini-premierships and letting other clubs raid the cupboard, it was past time to put in place the same infrastructure that supports the men’s side. In response, Brisbane have assembled a fairly traditional Broncos-looking side - good, well-known, experienced players across the park - and almost all of them are signed up for ‘23 and ‘24, so whatever we get this year will likely be replicated next.
Scott Prince replaces Kelvin Wright at the helm. Prince has decent runs on the board, coaching Valleys to an undefeated 2021 QRLW minor premiership, and ultimately losing the grand final to Burleigh. Maddick, Ciesiolka, Brigginshaw and Brill all played that day for the Diehards and return for the Broncos in 2023. Prince is working under Paul Dyer, who coached the Broncos to the first title in 2018.
Most would be familiar with Ciesiolka, Robinson, Brigginshaw and Lenarduzzi, all Origin champions (although Lenzarduzzi was a notable omission this year, despite being player of the match in the BMD final) and multiple premiership winners, while Teitzel, Gray and Denman (née Storch) all return as prodigal daughters from various stints elsewhere. Destiny Brill is a huge gain, repairing the hole left by the departure of Lauren Brown. Romy Teitzel, the nominal back rower with a surprising versatility, is a real coup, stolen from under the noses of the Cowboys, and will form a smashing pairing with Tazmin Gray in the second row. Jasmine Fogavini had a good season last year and again in the BMD, so looking forward to someone finally paying her attention if she can get a start over those two.
Hayley Maddick starts at fullback and the newly signed Gayle Broughton at five-eighth but I would guess that they will swap at some point. Maddick has all the skills but its on a frame that is not built for fullback, while Broughton played in the number 1 jersey for the runner-up 2022 Eels. People keep seeming to ignore that Maddick is about as effective a tackler as Kodi Nikorima but if the Broncos persist, Maddick is going to be a defensive liability.
The superstar days of the late 2010s are gone. Even if some of the players remain from the triple premiership era, there’s not a lot of fresh young faces in the starting side. The novelties have tended to be imports from elsewhere (e.g. Mele Hufanga) and even the reserves are players on the wrong side of 30. Whether that experience outweighs the youthful exuberance of other sides remains to be seen. The league certainly has a lot more capable early 20-somethings than capable 30-somethings but when the time comes, Ali Brigginshaw shows she’s still got it. The Broncos will definitely have a competent team, but as Norths demonstrated in the BMD Premiership earlier this year, that’s not probably not enough.
The Cowboys are a brand new team but given the torrents of female players that have emerged from North Queensland, one can only assume they weren’t given a licence earlier to save on travel costs. A substantial portion of the Knights’ 2022 premiership winning roster originated in North Queensland and have now migrated home to represent their home club.
Ben Jeffries has exactly the resume of a successful coach. 28 appearances in the NRL, followed by 256 for Bradford and Wakefield Trinity, followed by time in the North Queensland system coaching juniors, assisting at the Blackhawks and, post-covid, taking the reins at the Indigenous All-stars and the PNG Orchids. There’s enough experience there to understand how the game is played without the presence of transcendent playing talent that often leaves the best players unable to teach or communicate.
If there’s a problem, it’s going to be in the pack. NRL.com had April Ngatupuna listed as starting in the predicted round 1 lineup, which was not encouraging. Ngatupuna came off the bench for Souths Logan in the BMD and was an effective battering ram but I’m not sure if she’d have the engine for a starting role at this level. She has been relegated to the reserves for the Cowboys’ opener against the Titans. Instead, Tallisha Harden, more of a second rower, is starting at prop and the rest of the listed middle rotation is quite young. Raftstrand-Smith (20) played two seasons with the Titans, Weale (21) spent last season with the Knights, but the bench middles of Mooka (23) and Banu (21) have been elevated from local footy, albeit via the Indigenous All-stars and the PNG Orchids, respectively. The other two spots on the bench have been allocated to backs. None of the reserves are over 23.
I’m choosing to be optimistic about the youthfulness and readiness of the Cowboys and there’s a lot to like elsewhere. Shaniah Power is going to kick asses anyway. Fran Goldthorp comes from England as their most highly rated player. China Polata made her Origin debut a few weeks ago and impressed during the BMD finals. Autumn-Rain Stephens-Daly has a cool name and caps for the Kiwi Ferns. Kirra Dibb, an oft forgotten talent, has played for the 0-3 Roosters in 2019 and the 0-5 Knights in 2021* but also the premiership winning Knights of 2022. Emma Manzelmann is a deft dummy half, probably a really cracking season away from a Jillaroos jersey.
If Jeffries can get the team to settle quickly and get a professional level of production out of the youngsters, there’s nothing stopping the Cowboys from contending.
The photos of David Fifita and Jayden Campbell signing contract extensions in front of the wall with the chalk outlines of the Titans’ hopes and aspirations did at least show that Gold Coast want two women's titles to go with the notional two men's premierships they plan to win (ETA: TBA before 2026). The Titans made the finals in 2021*, before being unceremoniously punted with the Broncos in the semis, and then in 2022, didn't even fare that well, finishing last with one win from five. Frustratingly, there’s plenty of talent on paper but, in what is a recurring theme for the Titans, putting it together on the pitch has been elusive.
The attack in 2022 was pathetic, averaging fewer than ten points per game. Fortunately, we can dispense with the Lauren Brown: Halfback experiment, as Brown has returned to her natural habitat in the number 9 jersey. The recruitment of Blues’ half Taliah Fuimaono and Maroons’ U19 half Chantay Kiria-Ratu - she of that pass to win the game for Queensland - is an extremely potent combination in the playmaking roles, backed by the experienced Brittany Breayley-Nati at 14.
I’m not convinced that Evania Pelite will stay at fullback over a much improved Jaime Chapman but with U19 Maroons fullback Destiny Mino-Sinapati on one wing and senior Maroons winger Emily Bass on the other, that is also a potent backline, whatever its configuration. There’s points there now. Get Bass aerial.
The pack in 2022 was also pathetic, handing out a 100 metre head start to every other team. The Titans have three Origin forwards - adding NSW’s Shaylee Bent to Queensland’s Shannon Mato and Jessika Elliston - and experienced Kiwi Fern, Georgia Hale. It is, uh, potent but is Bent going to make enough of a difference for this side, given most of these forwards were there last year? Steph Hancock, who is five years older than me and plays like she’s ten years younger, is on the bench. Youngsters Sienna Lofipo and Rilee Jorgensen, both impressive in BMD and U19 Origin, sit in reserves.
It’s up to sophomore coach, Karyn Murphy, the only woman at the helm of the three Queensland NRLW clubs, to ensure the forwards lay the platform so the backs can get to work. If they can do that and not faff about for half of the season, the rest will follow. Surely, Gold Coast can’t Titans this one up. Surely.
Canberra ✰✰✰ - sneakily well assembled roster with a smattering of Women’s Super League and BMD Premiership talent, e.g. the Temaras and Emma Barnes. Raiders vs Sharks preview from The Sportress.
Cronulla ✰✰✰ - in that group of NSW teams that could be okay but because the NSW clubs are dividing roughly the same talent as Queensland but seven ways, there isn’t a brand name 1-13. Maddie Studdon in the reserves for round 1, which is astonishing considering the froth just a few years ago. Emma Tonegato adds a star.
Newcastle ✰✰✰✰ - it was inevitable that the defending premiers would lose a heap of talent to the Cowboys but even to my Maroon-tinted eyes, I can see the Blue talent, like the Southwells and Clydsdale and Moran and Johnston, in addition to more obvious talents, like Tamika Upton. Assume they’ll have minimal trouble battering the league again.
Parramatta ✰✰ - lucked their way into a grand final last season after making the finals with one (1) win and catching the Roosters short in the semi. The field is deeper this time, so the Eels need more but don’t appear to have it. Like several others, they have three or four brand name players and the strength of the rest of the roster will determine their success.
St George Illawarra ✰ - assume will be terrible due to the ongoing employment of the people who made the NRLM side terrible. The only foundation NRLW team that is still operational and hasn’t won a premiership. Strange that the Dragons announced the first slew of signings but don't have an especially impressive roster.
Sydney ✰✰✰✰ - very, very annoyed that the Roosters not only have Millie Boyle leading a phenomenal pack but now Tarryn Aiken as well. Given the performance of their NRLM team, Roosters fans should follow the lead of the 2020 Broncos fans. Disappointing finish to 2022 after winning in 2021. Will be looking to bounce back.
Wests ✰✰ - there’s a good chance the Tigers are the breakout team of the newbies with some hitherto unknown talents but I’ve also been hearing repeatedly that this is the Tigers’ year and they never, ever seem to deliver.
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