BIG YEAR A CRUCIAL JUNCTURE FOR WOMEN’S RUGBY LEAGUE
Following last weekend’s successful Nines tournament at Canterbury Park, the 2019 Canterbury Rugby League Women’s Premiership gets underway this Sunday.
This year’s competition features five clubs: Hornby, Celebration, Eastern, Burnham and defending champs Linwood. Papanui and Woolston have opted to not field sides in 2019.
The Keas will be targeted as the team to beat, but the Chevaliers have been earmarked as a potential title dark horse after saluting in the Nines. Linwood’s grand final-winning playmaker, Cassie Siataga, has joined Burnham in a key personnel change.
Siataga is also one of four Canterbury-based players in the Warriors’ wider 35-woman squad hoping to feature in the second NRLW premiership, along with Charntay Poko, Linwood recruit Lupe Manu, and Sui Pauaraisa, who was part of the Warriors’ historic 2018 campaign before earning a Kiwi Ferns Test debut.
A huge year for the women’s game in our region kicked off with the honour of being the first rugby league players to play a game at Ngā Puna Wai Sports Hub, courtesy of a Warriors-requested trial match. Warriors and Kiwi Ferns stars Georgia Hale and Lorina Papali’i travelled down to play alongside the South Island’s best talent.
Warriors Women’s coach Luisa Avaiki was impressed with the quality of the trial and the depth of talent on display.
“One of the main objectives (in staging the trial) was see the type of players we have in the south and to give those girls that opportunity,” Avaika said.
“I know that there’s some girls in there that haven’t played rugby league but play other sport and want a chance to try and put themselves forward to make the Warriors team. We wanted to see what the talent was like across the country.
“It’s great, too, that (Hale and Papali’i) get the chance to come down here and play alongside the Canterbury women.”
But while the pathways and opportunities now available to women’s rugby league players are unprecedented, many challenges still confront the women’s game at grassroots level.
CRL Development Officer Kylie O’Loughlin believes the exceptional public profile the game is receiving makes it even more imperative that the hard work is being put in on the club scene.
“Each club has gone through a tough period in terms of recruitment and retention,” says O’Loughlin, a former Canterbury representative player who in her coaching swansong steered the Keas to victory over the Tigers in last year’s epic grand final.
“The skill level in the Nines tournament was limited with the introduction of new players that had never played before, so we’re going through that same cycle again. We’ve found with Papanui not there and a few from each that would lift the standard of each club moving on, we’re going through a bit of a rebuilding phase.”
The key to creating a wider, more sustainable player base is a create junior pathways – a long-dormant area in women’s rugby league – that eventually flow into the senior club teams. This is one of Canterbury Rugby League’s primary focuses in 2019.
“Sometimes it feels like two steps forward, one back,” O’Loughlin admits.
“But It’s not going to be something that happens every year and with the introduction of a youth girls tournament by the end of the season, that will create a pathway – filling up the seniors with the better junior players, who are 17 or 18, rather than teaching them the fundamentals when they’re in their 20s.
“There’s definitely an interest there, and it’s about being able to create a strong competition for the juniors. We’ve got maybe 40 players on our books but in order for it to be something that’s going to be sustainable we probably need to double those numbers and keep pushing from the bottom.
“There’s still a massive amount of work to be done in that area and a lot of volunteers are needed as well.”
It is hoped the proposed youth girls tournament later this year will feature 15s and 17s grades – likely in a North, South, East and West format, with club-based teams forming from those groups of players in subsequent seasons.
Other highlights on the women’s rugby league calendar include a trial for the Canterbury team on Queen’s Birthday weekend, followed by the NZRL National Women’s Tournament later in June. Mike Linton has returned as coach as Canterbury aims to build on its highly-promising campaigns of recent seasons.
The National Tournament has become a crucial scouting event following the introduction of the NRLW – one of several ways the game’s increased profile has changed the dynamics of grassroots footy according to O’Loughlin.
“If we look at opportunities that have come from having the Warriors women’s trial here, it hasn’t necessarily been one-dimensional in terms of the Warriors.
“Because the game was live-streamed, clubs from Australia watched the game and have highlighted some players they would like to talk more with and potentially take them over to play for their clubs that feed into the NRLW comp.
“It’s awesome for Canterbury that we’re attracting that attention, but the pathways need to be tidied up so the cream of our playing talent isn’t always getting taken by Aussie.”
But it all essentially starts with attention to development and a strong club competition. O’Loughlin contends that there has been significant areas of improvement since the return of a women’s competition in Canterbury in 2014, but there is no room for complacency.
“In some aspects yes (there has been improvement), in some no. That’s why a lot of emphasis has been put on coaches, and getting the right people with the right attitude involved.
“From my experience at Linwood, winning the grand final last year was a massive improvement from where we were a few years earlier.
“But I hope as a whole the grade starts lifting standards and expectations, and not solely thinking you can just turn up and play. It needs to have some respect shown to it to lift the standard to where it needs to be.”
CRL WOMEN’S PREMIERSHIP ROUND 1
Sunday, April 14 – 1pm kick-off
Hornby Panthers v Celebration Lions @ Branston Park 1
Eastern Eagles v Linwood Keas @ Wainoni Park 2
Burnham Chevaliers BYE
Photo Credit: CMG Sports