The 2021 NRLW season, like the Tokyo Olympics, bears of the name of the year it was meant to be contested, rather than the year it is actually going to be contested. The premiership will comence on February 27 with a triple header at Newcastle and wrap up with a grand final in mid-April. Let’s get into how the season might play out.
The NRL forgot to organise the women’s premiership. So busy were they making last minute changes to the structure of the competition – which did not go down well – and ferrying the men around to avoid covid, there was no time or resources or money to organise a women’s premiership. Then the NRL announced a $50 million profit and most of the people responsible for what passes for sports journalism in this country did not make a connection.
Rather than dwell on the past, let’s look at the mostly positive changes for this season:
- The Warriors are out
- The Eels, Titans and Knights are in, bringing the league up to six teams
- Each team plays each other once
- There will be two weeks of finals
The scheduling is a mess. Newcastle host five of the fifteen regular season games. Brisbane, home of the three time premier Broncos, will host two games, including the Broncos’ first and only home game since 2018. The Titans, a brand new team, will also have one home game. Games are largely scheduled to kick off around noon or in the early afternoon in late February and through March. This is could all be improved upon, and certainly in the first two rounds where there isn’t a clash with the NRLM, but the NRL either doesn’t care or if it does, the demands of Nine override that. I have no idea what they intend to show at 4pm on Sundays before the NRLM gets underway but apparently it’s important enough to make women play at midday in summer.
How this all works
We have statistics for the women’s competition but too few games from which to build a decent sample size for statistical analysis, so, unlike the men’s NRL, this is merely a “dive” and not a “deep dive”. It’s also been so long since the last NRLW competition at the end of the 2020 season, around fifteen months, that it’d be tough to draw any serious conclusions relevant to this season. Instead, we’re going with good old eye test and gut feel.
Interesting fact: that the NRL website doesn’t list the squads properly, except on this tracker, but you’re better of using this excellently curated Wikipedia article (like I did). The broadcast partners have not picked up the slack in covering the game.
One thing to keep in mind is the differing levels of player form we’ll see across the competition. 2022 is a huge year for the women, contesting two NRLW premierships, a World Cup, probably a three game Origin series and most, if not all, will have state cup commitments. Most athletes manage a few months at peak performance in a given season and it’d be entirely understandable if many opted not to be in that frame for February, saving their best for winter and early spring. I’m taking the names at face value for this analysis but we don’t know who’s got what plans for dealing with up to 30 first and second class games this year.
- Premierships: 3 (2018, 2019, 2020)
- Record: 11-1
- Roster caps: 32 Interstate, 26 Tests
The Broncos return with an all-star spine of Upton, Brigginshaw, Aiken and Gould, players whose first names are not required for clarity. Lauren Brown can fill in at hooker if needed, as she did twice against the Roosters in 2020. Up front Boyle and Lenarduzzi – hereafter referred to as the Smash Sisters – will continue to demolish opposition defences. It’s the same core, with some reshuffling in the outside backs (Valleys’ fullback Hayley Maddick joins, for instance) and a few losses of fringe players, and the same coaching staff, with Kelvin Wright returning for a third trip around, and the same club infrastructure and the same desire to conquer all comers. The seemingly unending parade of premierships is going to come to an end at some point, and it could be this season, but Brisbane start as odds-on favourites.
Gold Coast Titans
- New franchise
- Roster caps: 50 Interstate, 70 Tests
The Titans are fortunate that the QRLW premiers, the Burleigh Bears, reside right on their doorstep and, like the Gold Coast itself, the Titans’ roster is a mix of Australian and New Zealand talent. From the Burleigh group, we have Tazmin Gray, the immortal Karina Brown and Brittany Brealey-Nati at hooker. From the ex-Warriors, we have Rona Peters and Georgia Hale. Perhaps the most exciting addition is Destiny Brill from Valleys and star of Queensland’s Origin upset last year.
There’s plenty of big names but the Kiwi Ferns on the Gold Coast aren’t as impressive as the Knights’ and the Queensland-based players don’t have the pedigree of the Broncos’. The Titans’ coach is Jillaroos assistant coach and ex-Roosters coach Jamie Feeney and he will have his work cut out for him establishing the club and getting the most out of these players but I think he showed what he can do with the Roosters in 2020. There’s plenty of experience – Karina Brown, Steph Hancock and Georgia Hale represent the bulk of representative caps – so they should gel as a group, but do they still have the engine for it?
- New franchise
- Roster caps: 2 Interstate, 50 Tests
I was fairly certain that the Knights were going to get the spoon this season. Before the aborted 2021 season, they struggled to attract talent from Sydney and from south-east Queensland, because the marquee money was not enough to justify up-ending one’s life for several months on end. However, the Warriors’ loss is the Knights’ gain. Newcastle have assembled a side with nearly 50 Tests of experience. Kirra Dibb is the only Jillaroo (with exactly one Test) and the remainder, including Maitua Feterika, Krystal Rota and Charntay Poko (HELL YES! SHE’S BACK), have been for the Kiwi Ferns. Newcastle have also scooped up some North Queensland fringe players, and while the Gold Stars were a clear third best in last year’s QRLW, there’s something in this squad that has plenty of potential on the upside. Making the grand final is almost certainly too far but they aren’t locks for the bottom of the table either.
- New franchise
- Roster caps: 24 Interstate, 29 Tests
Most of the rep Maddie Studdon carries is not her fault – its a beatup of the lazy media – but at some point, we have to wonder when the results are going to come. Other than a Nines title in Perth (remember that?), Studdon has two grand final losses to her account and arguably had a big hand in NSW losing last year’s Origin. The Eels pegging their new women’s franchise to Studdon is about the most Parramatta move imaginable.
It is a team sport and there are other roster selections to comment on. The first female player to get any media attention for off-field behaviour, Nita Maynard, is their hooker. Make of that what you will. Until the All-Stars game, where she was probably the better fullback on the field, I didn’t have huge wraps on Botille Vette-Welsh, and she may face some competition from gold medallist Tiana Penitani for both her spot as Eels 1 and as Blues 1, but Vette-Welsh seems to be in tip top condition right now.
I’m not super impressed with the line-up and to be fair, I rarely am when it comes to Parramatta. There are far too many ex-Dragons for my liking but I’ll offset that by pointing out that a bulk of Mounties’ 10-1 HNWP side seem to have found a home at Parra. That’s the kind of recruitment that puts them as the best of the newcomers and should be a decent shout for third place.
St George Illawarra Dragons
- Premierships: 0 (runner-up 2019)
- Record: 3-7
- Roster caps: 19 Interstate, 28 Tests
The Dragons are completely dysfunctional as a team and a club. We’ve seen them constantly waste the time of otherwise talented players (and fans) and I’ve seen nothing to suggest that won’t continue. They’ve got Kezie Apps and Holli Wheeler and the rest of the roster is nothing exceptional. Undoubtedly new talents will establish themselves but outside of Albert, Dodd and Davis, it’s a Russian roulette as to who that might be. Of the players who played state last year, they’re a patchwork of Sharks, Bears, Mounties and Tigers, which could be a problem – for both performance and cohesion – when the Roosters are exclusively drawing on the number one team and the Eels are doing likewise on the next best team, leaving the Dragons to do their best to cobble together something from the remainder.
For the record, Elsie Albert is not the first PNG Orchid to participate in the NRLW. That honour belongs to 2018 premiership winner, Amelia Kuk. Albert is mean and should add a little more bash to the Dragons’ front row. The Dragons’ most notable upside is that they have replaced their Seiboldian coach with Mat Head, a name that is surely missing a few letters. The Dragons will have the benefit of having existed for several years before half of the competition, which that should lend them some advantage but they’ve squandered most of that time and talent, and so I have little faith of more than a limp week 1 exit, if that.
- Premierships: 0 (runner-up 2018 and 2020)
- Record: 3-8
- Roster caps: 25 Interstate, 25 Tests
If there’s a team likely to win the premiership that isn’t the Broncos, it’s the Roosters. The core of the challenging-but-not-quite-there 2020 Roosters side return, including Corban Baxter and the ultra-aggerssive and mercurial Zehara Temara.
That doesn’t happen every game but when it does, it’s on.
Jess Sergis, one of, if not the, best female player in the world, leaves the garbage fire of the Dragons. Wikipedia has her listed at fullback, which is intriguing as hell, but more likely an error. She should line up at centre with Isabelle Kelly, a potent combination. While the backline is formidable, the roster is light on brand name forwards outside of Hannah Southwell. However, the bulk of pack played as the undefeated Central Coast Roosters in 2021, which is suggestive that there are brand names lying in wait and I am far from writing them off.
Former assistant coach, John Strange, has been promoted to the head role and it remains to be seen if he can also get this Roosters team playing cohesive football, as Jamie Feeney managed. At this level, with this depth of talent, that is a huge part of the battle but he’s seen how it’s done, so there’s no reason to not expect the Roosters to be in the mix.