WOMEN’S LEAGUE’S SEASON OF UNCERTAINTY TO HIT NEW HEIGHTS
A season that threatened to be completely wiped out by COVID-19 will culminate in a historic NZRL National Premiership campaign for Canterbury’s leading women’s players – along with the prospect of a Kiwi Ferns or Fetu Samoa Test call-up.
Moving away from the usual long weekend tournament format, New Zealand Rugby League announced a four-week National Women’s Premiership for 2020. Canterbury, Counties Manukau Stingrays, Akarana Falcons and Mid Central Vipers will feature in a round-robin plus a final, mirroring the Men’s Premiership schedule.
A new-look Canterbury team – coached for the first time by Tala Kele – kick off the fledgling competition against Counties Manukau at Ngā Puna Wai this Saturday. They’re at home again on Sunday 11 October for a showdown with Mid Central, before heading to Auckland to take on Akarana on Saturday 17 October.
— NZ Rugby League (@NZRL_Kiwis) September 24, 2020
“There’s lot of new, young girls in the team providing lots of enthusiasm,” Canterbury co-captain Fleur Barker says of the team’s build-up.
“It’s a good environment for everyone to learn in.”
Barker will lead the side alongside former Kiwi Fern Bunty Crowe – her opposing lock and player of the match in the 2020 CRL Women’s Grand Final, won 46-16 by Sydenham Swans over Woolston Rams earlier this month.
New Zealand and Samoa rep Sui Pauaraisa completes a vital triumvirate of experience in the pack.
“I’ve been in this situation before so I’m quite used to it,” Barker explains.
“It’s just good to see new faces in the team and people enjoying the game and wanting to play. It’s good having that experience there, and we are in the middle so we can help bring those new ones through – we’ll definitely be relying on Bunty there.”
Thanks to the support of the NZ Government and Sport NZ, the NZRL Men’s and Sky Sport Women’s Premiership competitions will kick off October 3 and proceed over four weeks. All Premiership fixtures will be televised live on Sky Sport 4. https://t.co/L8bCDCLFUh
— NZ Rugby League (@NZRL_Kiwis) September 3, 2020
Coach Kele confirmed he will be leaning on his veteran forwards to guide Canterbury’s campaign on the field – but he pinpointed some emerging players primed to take the next step as leaders.
“I’ve got a young squad, probably the youngest in the competition. But in saying that we’ve got the likes of Bunty and Fleur, they’ve got a wealth of knowledge between the two of them,” Kele says.
“Then there’s Sui Pauaraisa, she’s also been around the scene for a while – she’s a talker, very much like Bunty and Fleur.
“And a player like Michelle Wong, (assistant coach) Scotty MacDonald and I see a lot of potential in her as well, and the likes of Sharna Honetana. They’re grafters, not the flashest players but prepared to put their hand up and work hard.”
Before taking on the coaching role, Kele was part of the committee that got an abbreviated women’s club competition underway in difficult circumstances.
Sydenham, Woolston and Eastside played nine rounds, regrouping from an unavoidable drop in player numbers felt across every grassroots sport in 2020.
“It wasn’t an easy road and it put a bit of dampener on everything because a lot of players who were really keen at the start of the year, for one reason or another (pulled out) – citing things like (family), which is fair enough,” Kele says.
“But we had three teams, so at end of the day we had a good robust competition. The players that did play in the three teams certainly put their hand up and made my job (as Canterbury coach and selector) a little bit harder.”
Given the return of COVID-19 restrictions that wrought havoc on Auckland’s club football program recently, a comparatively uninterrupted season could provide Canterbury with a crucial edge in the coming weeks.
Meanwhile, Barker praised the commitment of the players, coaches and club volunteers whose efforts ensured the staging of a meaningful local comp for Canterbury’s women’s players – doubly important heading into the inaugural National Premiership.
“It wasn’t an ideal start but by the sounds of it most regions were in the same boat, especially in terms of their women’s grade,” Barker says.
“It was just really good that in the end some teams could all get together for the common goal of getting a competition going to then lead into this national competition.”
Canterbury has punched above its weight in recent national women’s tournaments, finishing third in Auckland-hosted competitions that saw teams play multiple games on the same day.
Barker and Kele were both emphatic in their enthusiasm for the overdue shift to a format of teams playing once a week – as well as the unprecedented exposure and recognition our provincial women’s reps will receive courtesy of live Sky Sports coverage and the new competition’s positioning alongside the NZRL National Men’s Premiership.
“It’s quite unrealistic to be expected to play multiple games in a day and expect to get the best out of everybody,” Barker asserts.
“That’s not the way the game’s designed to be played. It’s really good to get back to a straight 80-minute game, one per week and everybody put their best team out there – it’s a much better scenario for the game.
“It’s definitely great to get women’s sport out there – especially sports that are not necessarily the most common sports for women to be playing. Young girls can sit at home or come to the game and watch it, see it out there and see that’s what I could be doing or someone else could be doing. Not just your stereotypical sports for women.”
Kele echoed his skipper’s sentiments, adding that the expanded schedule will make his coaching staff’s job considerably easier:
“I’m a big advocate of this format. When I found out they (had been) playing two games a day over a three-day period, it blew me away. The women’s players shouldn’t be treated like this.
“This format is so much better, giving the girls a week to recuperate, a chance to assess the game they’ve played. It gives me and my coaching staff an opportunity to review the game, look ahead and plan how we’re going to play.”
In an exciting conclusion to the women’s rugby league season – particularly in a year where international matches have been largely scrapped – the Kiwi Ferns will play Fetu Samoa at Mt Smart Stadium on 7 November, two weeks after the NZRL National Women’s Premiership final.
Given NRLW players currently stationed in Australia are unlikely to be available for selection, the vast majority of both teams are set to come from the Counties Manukau, Akarana, Canterbury and Mid Central teams, with form over the next four weeks the main criteria.
Ex-Warriors star Pauaraisa played for Samoa against New Zealand in 2019 (after debuting for the Ferns a year earlier), while Crowe last earned Kiwi Ferns selection for the 2017 World Cup. But several uncapped Canterbury players will be eager to push their claims for higher honours.
— NZ Rugby League (@NZRL_Kiwis) September 16, 2020
Barker says, however, that the Premiership is the main priority – performing well individually and as a team will take care of the rest.
“In reality I think everybody is just focusing on this campaign first.
“If something was to come out of the way they played, they’d all be really happy for themselves or teammates.
“We really are just focusing on this campaign as Canterbury and our team and putting our best foot forward, but it is great they’ve managed to get some international games in there.”
NZRL NATIONAL WOMEN’S PREMIERSHIP
2:05pm, Saturday, October 3 – Canterbury v Counties Manukau Stingrays @ Ngā Puna Wai
12pm, Sunday, October 11 – Canterbury v Mid Central Vipers @ Ngā Puna Wai
12pm, Saturday, October 17 – Akarana Falcons v Canterbury @ Pulman Park
1. Fluer Barker
2. Shade McGregor-Pakau
3. Eti Wilson
4. Sharna Honetana
5. Sailiai Pau
6. Lucy Crabbe
7. Michelle Wong
8. Bunty Crowe
9. Gloria Su’a
10. Talosaga Manu
11. Lupe Manu
12. Masuisui Pauaraisa
13. Taryn Caley
14. Kathryn Petero
15. Angela Petero
16. Monica Ah San
17. Alisha Fonmoa
18. Jazz Wynyard
19. Epenesa Ki
20. Juliette Mile Talanoa
21. Tanya Ripley
22. Olive Tapu
Coach: Tala Kele
Assistant Coach: Scotty MacDonald
Manager: Sabrina Manu
Trainer: Aaron Hoeflich
Assistant Trainer: Manu Taufa
Photo Credit: @mattylouisphotography