CANTERBURY WOMEN GEARING UP FOR HUGE 2023 SEASON
The 2023 Canterbury Rugby League Women’s Premiership kicks off this Sunday, with Sydenham Swans, Woolston Rams, Eastern Eagles and Burnham Chevaliers all aiming to knock defending champs Linwood Keas off their perch.
It’s the third straight season these five clubs have vied for the title, following the COVID-condensed 2020 campaign. In Round 1, the Eagles host the Swans at Wainoni Park while the Rams welcome the Keas to Woolston Park, with both games getting underway at 1pm. The Chevaliers have the first bye.
Of the current teams, only the Eagles have not featured in a Ngā Puna Wai grand final since rugby league’s move there four seasons ago.
Burnham completed an unbeaten year in 2019 with a 34-22 comeback win over Linwood in the decider; Sydenham carved out back-to-back grand final victories over Woolston in 2020 and ’21; and the Keas returned to top billing in 2022, running down the Swans 22-20 in the grand final with a late surge.
The women’s premiership decider returned to its traditional timeslot alongside the Pat Smith Trophy Challenge on CRL Grand Final Day in 2017.
After May starts in recent years, the 2023 CRL Women’s Premiership expands to a 15-round format – and one of the region’s most experienced players is predicting a close-fought competition.
“This year I think there’s a couple of players coming back to the Eagles, which should even the competition out even more,” says long-serving Canterbury rep Fleur Barker, whose Rams were tipped up in the preliminary final by the Swans last August.
“I know Northern were hoping to get a team, so there’s that potential for another club entering in the future, which would be good because they’re outside the little area where Woolston, Linwood and Eastern are trying to pull players from.
“Hopefully we can keep these five teams and have a sixth team join at some stage.
“It’s small group of people, everyone knows each other pretty well. There’s a lot of rivalry on the field, but off the field everyone’s pretty good mates – keep the game on the field and have a bit of fun afterwards.”
Canterbury’s elite players will have an eye on the post-season, when the NZRL National Women’s Premiership reverts to its usual September-October slot on the rugby league calendar.
Last season the provincial competition was held in March-April, with Canterbury proving competitive in losses to Counties Manukau Stingrays (46-10) and eventual champs Akarana Falcons (28-14) before finishing their campaign with a win over Mid Central Vipers (22-12).
“I hope most players are going to make themselves available to make it as strong a Canterbury team as possible,” Barker says.
“Especially if there’s the promotion/relegation in the premiership – Canterbury need to stay up in that top division.”
The growth in women’s league in New Zealand and abroad can be seen courtesy of the increased exposure and ongoing expansion of the NRLW premiership in Australia since 2018, as well as the success of the Women’s Rugby League World Cup in England late last season.
The trickle-down effect is more players are getting involved at junior level. Over the Easter weekend, Canterbury girls under-16s and under-18s teams finished fourth and fifth, respectively, at the NZRL National District 9s tournaments.
Canterbury Rugby League will also be holding a girls development day at Wainoni Park on Sunday, April 30 (10am-2pm).
“It’s becoming a lot more (visible), which is what you need for the younger players,” Bakrer enthuses.
“They can watch the games every weekend, they don’t have to only be watching the men’s NRL, they can see a possible pathway for young girls and see that there is a New Zealand Kiwi Ferns team.
“Being able to see the NRLW and that, yes, there are (professional) teams and obviously its expanding again, so there are opportunities for players.”
Canterbury women have made an impact at the elite level in recent years, with Bunty Kuruwaka-Crowe and Corrina Whiley debuting for New Zealand together in 2017, Sui Tauasa Pauaraisa earning a contract as a Warriors NRLW original and playing for the Kiwi Ferns in 2018, and Charntay Poko representing the Kiwi Ferns and starring for the Warriors’ NRLW team in 2019.
Meanwhile, former CRL Development Officer and Linwood Keas Women’s Premiership-winning coach Kyle O’Loughlin is currently in Sydney as Cronulla Sharks’ Tarsha Gale Cup (NSWRL women’s under-19s) assistant coach.
Barker has a message for anyone who wants to get involved with women’s rugby league – in a playing capacity or otherwise:
“Have the passion for it, sign up to a club, help out. It doesn’t necessarily have to be as a player – there’s plenty of opportunities as coaches, managers, volunteers.
“There’s pathways to the NRLW, Kylie O (O’Loughlin) is over there – it doesn’t have to be all about playing.”
Meanwhile, after falling agonisingly short of lifting the trophy in recent seasons, Barker asserts the Rams have a steely focus on returning to the grand final stage in 2023.
“That’s always the intention, so we’ll see how the season goes – that’s where we want to be.”
Keen to get involved in women’s rugby league in Canterbury? Contact the clubs via the links below: