Women’s Grand Final To Highlight Game’s Growth
A key feature of grand final day at Linfield Park is the return of the Canterbury Rugby League women’s premiership grand final as a main curtain-raiser to the men’s premiership decider.
Defending champions Papanui Tigers will take on Linwood Keas at 1pm on Sunday in a rematch of the 2016 grand final, which the Tigers won 44-6.
The resurgence and growth of the CRL women’s competition over the past two years has been a highlight for the code in Canterbury, and is reflective of the massive popularity the women’s game is enjoying – and the hard work many within the game have put in – throughout New Zealand and Australia.
The dominant Tigers will field recent Kiwi Ferns debutants Bunty Kuruwaka-Crowe and Corrina Whiley, along with Stacey Poutu-Hildreth, who was selected in the Ferns’ wider squad ahead of November’s World Cup.
Linwood’s bid for an upset will be driven by Sui Pauaraisa, who was also named in the Ferns’ wider squad, and veteran captain Turanga Ta’Ase.
Papanui sports mentor and trainer, Vicki Campbell, believes her side needs to ignore their favouritism and concentrate on their own game, which has seen the Tigers romp through season 2017 undefeated.
“The thing we are reiterating is we know our game-plan, we what we’re good at and what we can produce,” former Kiwi Fern Campbell said.
“We don’t want to change too much – there’s no point doing anything overly different to what we’ve always done.”
The Keas unquestionably go into Sunday’s showdown as underdogs, having gone down to the Tigers – who are coached by Taurean Whiley, brother of Corrina – 43-24 and 38-12 during the regular season, and 32-8 in the major semi-final.
But the Kylie O’Loughlin-coached Keas will ensure the Tigers are made to work hard if they are to successfully defend their crown.
“We’ve had a few injuries and a couple of players overseas, so we’ve had to pull together a wee bit, but the team’s not looking bad at all with those things considered,” O’Loughlin said.
“If you don’t have the belief then you probably shouldn’t be here.
“It’s tough because we’re a team of players that have only had one or two seasons of rugby league, so we’re still in that learning phase.
“To win would be awesome, but the progression we’ve made over the last couple of years has been a feat in itself.”
WOMEN’S RUGBY LEAGUE RESURGENCE
Campbell and O’Loughlin are both ecstatic about the giant strides women’s rugby league has made in recent years after a long period of struggling for recognition and player and volunteer numbers.
“I played back in the 1990s and it was normal that we played on (grand final) day, so this is going back to what was normality,” Campbell said.
“There’s some key women that I’ve been working with, and this was our goal.
“We had a vision for our girls that we’ve been working with for the last 11 years at intermediate and high school, playing rugby and league, and we wanted to mentor them into being the best league players because we knew that was their background.
“(We have also) encouraged them to push that in their own circles and get other girls and women onboard. Hopefully one day we’ll take over rugby being the game of choice.”
O’Loughlin echoed those sentiments:
“It’s awesome that we’ve been recognised at this level. Canterbury Rugby League has really had a look at our grade this season and you can tell they’re trying to give us the exposure that we’ve asked for so we can grow the game,” she said.
“It means a lot that we can actually do this.
“The girls are amped, and because Linwood have the prems and the Bs in the grand final, it’s created such a great atmosphere within the club.”
KIWI FERNS BREAKTHROUGHS INSPIRE
The Kiwi Ferns debuts of Kuruwaka-Crowe and Whiley, along with the wider training squad recognition achieved by Poutu-Hildreth and Pauaraisa, is indicative of their individual talents and diligence, but also of the burgeoning quality of the player pool in Canterbury.
It has also provided young women’s players with the belief that aspiring to national representation is not in vain.
“(The Ferns selections have) given us a pathway that we can actually see, that if you put in the hard work and have that good mindset and understanding of the game, you can reach the pinnacle,” O’Loughlin said.
“It’s great that the Papanui girls, and Sui from our team, (we’ve) been able to produce players like that (in Canterbury) and that’s a positive influence throughout the grade – something for the young girls (that shows) you can represent your country in this sport.”
O’Loughlin also praised the influence of veteran players such as skipper Ta’Ase.
“She has been in plenty of grand finals over 20 years, so she’s one of our players that we can draw on with experience.
“She grounds the girls in a way and brings them back to the most important things they need to focus on.”
Campbell was equally emphatic about the impact the recent Ferns nods have had on the Canterbury women’s competition.
“It’s opened our girls’ eyes around what’s possible, around achieving not only the goals that we’ve set for them, but realising themselves that (their own) goals are achievable.
“It also encourages those on the fringes to want to be better players, on and off the field, which is quite exciting.”
The major weather event that saw grand final weekend postponed hampered a prime opportunity for the Tigers and Keas players to push their World Cup claims.
“I tried my best to get (Kiwi Ferns coach) Tony Benson to come down (for the grand final) – he was booked to come down last weekend, but with the change of plans he wasn’t able to make it,” Campbell revealed.
“(It is) the best opportunity to watch not only our Papanui girls play, but some of the Linwood team as well because they’ve got Sui and some girls on the fringes that I think definitely have a chance.”
But the silver lining is Canterbury Women’s coach and Kiwi Ferns assistant coach Michael Linton will be at Linfield Park for the decider – and no doubt reporting back to New Zealand head coach Benson about the talent the region can provide to the Ferns’ tilt at reclaiming the World Cup.
Linton’s elevation to the national team’s staff this year – on the back of Canterbury’s outstanding performance in the 2016 national tournament – is another testament to the progress of women’s rugby league in the province, and the rewards those within the game are reaping.
It’s only the tip of the iceberg according to Campbell, however.
“We’ve got a massive pool of outstanding women that have come out of Canterbury (in the past),” she said, “and I still think we’ve got a massive pool now that New Zealand are missing.”