We only witnessed the grand final of the last season four months ago, but we’re back again with a new season of women’s football to look forward to. This season is the first official Deep Dive™ into the women’s game, so let’s get into it.
Note: in line with the convention of the NRL, I’ll be referring to the season played earlier this year as the 2021 season, even though it was played from February to April in 2022.
The Broncos got absolutely hosed in their semi final and some Sydney team won the competition. Who cares… ok, fine. The Roosters “won” their first premiership, after going 2-3 in the regular season – a losing record – before turning up in the semis and knocking out the defending premiers and minor premiership holders, and then finishing the job comfortably, 16-4, against the Dragons. Overall, it was a short, sharp affair, marginally hindered by odd venue choices to reduce costs to the NRL and time slots too early in the day to make room for the NRLM, but otherwise, a fantastic success.
The Broncos coming back to the pack will only help invigorate interest in the competition, especially south of the border. The NRL has done well to maintain (even improve!) a high standard of play, while expanding by 50%, which perhaps reflects that this expansion should have happened sooner or, at least, with more notice. This speaks to the surge in women’s participation, increasing size of the talent pool, and the instatement of pathways for teenagers, deepening the skills available in the pool.
Whether that’s quite fast enough to accommodate another 66% growth for 2023 remains to be seen, but there has been substantial turnover between the 2021 and 2022 seasons (nearly two rosters’ worth, probably due to player availability as much as anything else), suggesting there is an abundance of fringe talent. Reforms to the salary cap system should see the top tier talent more evenly distributed without intervention from head office. I wouldn’t have been concerned about going up to eight teams for 2023 and then ten the season after that, but I anticipate some growing pains next year by jumping straight to ten. We’ll see how this season pans out and which stars emerge.
How this all works
The main mechanism for assessment, in conjunction with the numbers, is to look at each club’s strengths, weaknesses and their opportunities for improvement and see what changes have been made in the off-season that might signal a move up or down the ladder. This is a little light on statistics for a Deep Dive, as the sample size for professional women’s football is still very small and the state of the game is changing extremely rapidly. As usual, you can read How It All Works for a starting point.
I pulled the trigger on creating a player rating system. The men’s system relies on units of production called Taylors (Ty), after the man who could do it all, Dave Taylor, and the women’s equivalent will be Teitzels (Tz), after Romy Teitzel, an incredibly versatile player that has covered fullback, centre and second row. Because of sample size limitations, I put two seasons of QRLW and the most recent of NRLW into the one regression (80 games total including finals) and so Teitzels are based on tries, try assists, running metres, post contact metres, line breaks, line break assists, tackle busts, hit ups, missed tackles and errors (unlike the men’s dataset, kick metres have a slightly negative correlation in the women’s dataset and dummy half runs and kick return metres are not tracked at QRLW level). The NSWRL, in its infinite wisdom, does not display individual player stats for their state competition at all, despite being more than half the talent pool, so we have no way of assessing how players coming from that competition performed. For the NRLW, I also calculated a stat called retention, which is the ratio of the sum of production in the 2021 season by players on the current roster, as a proportion of the sum of production by the club in that season. Assuming players produce at the same level, it shows the flow of talent through the league.
Stats on caps taken from John C Moriarty.
- Premierships: 3 (2018, 2019, 2020)
- All time record: 15-3
- 2021 season: 1st, 4-1, semis exit
- Elo: 1562 (2021 form), 1579 (class)
- Caps: 36 Interstate, 10 Tests
- Previous Production: 2961 Tz @ 82% retention (NRLW), 2421 Tz (QRLW)
Brisbane went from being an untouchable force within the women’s game, setting amazing precedent after amazing precedent, to actually being challenged in two games, and setting a bunch of very bad precedents. The Broncos have never won a NRLM or NRLW premiership while sharing that competition with the Titans. The Broncos have never even beaten the Titans in the NRLW. The Broncos have never won a premiership in the 70-minute era. Now, the Broncos have shed even more talent from the years they did win premierships. Despite the minor premiership, a 4-1 record and statistical domination, all anyone will remember from the 2021 season is the loss to the Roosters and the end of the dynasty.
Moving into 2022, the three main losses are Tamika Upton and Millie Boyle to the Knights and Lauren Brown to the Titans. I’d speculate that the former two left as soon as possible because they could easily earn marquee money elsewhere and those slots at Brisbane were probably reserved for Brigginshaw – anecdotally, I see Brigginshaw’s face on ads as often, maybe more, than Reynolds’ around Brisbane – and Aiken. They took almost 20% of Brisbane’s 2021 production with them.
Brown is both a capable hooker but also a sharp shooter at goal, a skillset that is valuable and will be very difficult to replace. Nita Maynard seems likely to take her place in the 9. The quality of the game simply does not allow Upton to slice through the line any more, as she memorably did in the 2020 Origin game, and injuries have marginally tempered her speed. It seems likely that the Broncos will field Hayley Maddick in her place and while Maddick has plenty of skill, she is also on the small side and prone to being flattened by bigger players, something that was rarely a problem for Upton.
Jaime Chapman adds some speed to the back line from the Dragons, Chelsea Lenarduzzi and Tallisha Harden return to the second row and most of Brisbane’s quality outside backs have been retained. Kelvin Wright returns for his fourth season as coach. Keep an eye on Jasmine Fogavini, who amassed the second most production in this year’s BMD Premiership of any Bronco, averaging 105m per game in the second row for Souths Logan.
I’m not expecting overly much from the Broncos this season as they adjust to a new, less dominant position in the world. I’d set the line at a mid-table finish and a semi-final exit. Missing the finals would be mildly disappointing but hardly surprising, given the gains of the other teams. Longer term, the challenge, as the Broncos shift from an era where it was easy to hoard talent to a more competitive labour market, is estbalishing the conveyor belt of talent to keep the roster topped up, as stars emerge and then leave for paychecks elsewhere. There are four QRLW clubs based in the Brisbane local government area (albeit the best finished fourth this year), so this should not be a difficult task but it is an important one to secure the future of the franchise.
Gold Coast Titans
- Premierships: 0
- All time record: 3-2
- 2021 season: 3rd, 3-2, semis exit
- Elo: 1495 (2021 form), 1493 (class)
- Caps: 89 Interstate, 10 Tests
- Previous Production: 3008 Tz @ 99% retention (NRLW), 4117 Tz (QRLW)
It’s a little difficult to get a read on the Titans, not least because this team sits at the shrivellingly small nexus of interest that exists between Titans football and women’s football. The squad assembled for last season didn’t seem to have anything in particular to recommend it but, nonetheless, beat the Broncos and finished with a winning record. We could attribute this partly to the coaching of Jamie Feeney, which might be an issue as he is now out and Karyn Murphy is now in.
Nonetheless, we are now more familiar with the Titans. Their spine of Breayley-Nati times two at 9 and 7, Georgia Hale at 6 and ex-7s Evania Pelite at 1 has shown it is more than capable. The signing of Lauren Brown from the Broncos, originally an outside back and more recently a talonneur, creates questions as to where she will fit in. It seems unlikely that they would have signed her to play centre or to replace the team captain at hooker but they will need to give her a jersey. Potentially, there will be a shuffle to address the departure of Maroons lock (and also former hooker) Destiny Brill to the Roosters.
The Titans’ tended to win the forwards battle – the running metres gained by and conceded to the starting forwards shown below – but not as dramatically as the Dragons and Broncos. They’ll be looking to improve that margin more in their favour in 2022, and gain more production than their slightly above league average performance in 2021.
To that end, the experienced hands of Rona Peters and Annette Brander, both coming off so-so QRLW campaigns, as well as former Bronco Roxy Murdoch, will join Steph Hancock in propping up the pack. The possibly immortal Karina Brown returns for yet another tour after another successful QRLW campaign on the wing and at fullback for Burleigh, joined by the excellent Hagiga Mosby on the other wing.
The Titans’ retention rate is very good, so we should see a similar level of performance out of the Gold Coast this season. A winning record and a finals appearance are definitely not out of the question. A surprise on the upside would see them in the grand final and at that point, anything can happen on the day. A potential spinal adjustment and new coach may take a bit of settling in, so I would not be surprised to see them lose their first and last games but win the ones in between.
- Premierships: 0
- All time record: 0-5
- 2021 season: 5th, 0-5, wooden spoon
- Elo: 1439 (2021 form), 1471 (class)
- Caps: 17 Interstate, 6 Tests
- Previous Production: 1785 Tz @ 112% retention (NRLW), 2660 Tz (QRLW)
Last year’s roster was noticeably undercooked. In 2019, CRL Newcastle won the NSW Women’s Premiership, finishing third with an 8-2 record. Post-covid and thanks to typical NSWRL politics arising from the CRL/NSWRL merger, that group of players defended their title in 2021 under the banner of the Central Coast Roosters (no Newcastle team entered the 2021 competition). Those Roosters then formed the backbone of the club that won the NRLW.
The Knights were given about ten weeks’ notice that they were joining the original 2021 NRLW season. Bereft of the local talent stolen by the Roosters, and not based in SEQ or Sydney, the Knights struggled to recruit. Eventually, they managed to cobble a team together of former Warriors that could be made available and North Queenslanders that had been ignored by the Broncos and Titans.
It didn’t pan out well for the Novocastrians, failing to win a game. Normally, an 0-5 start to a season is bad but not an existential crisis for a NRLM side. The womens Knights had a Pythagorean expectation that would translate to 3.4 wins over a 24 game schedule. That’s still not good but it’s about on par with some Knights teams of the last decade.
So the incredibly low bar the Knights have to clear is simply to win their first NRLW game. That should not be a problem. The introduction of a salary cap with two marquee slots has meant that the club can spend enough money to secure Millie Boyle and Tamika Upton from the Broncos, two of the best in the game, to join Hannah Southwell incoming from the Roosters and re-signees Caitlan Johnston, Romy Teitzel and Kirra Dibb. That’s the core of a pretty handy side, one that won’t get blown off the park so easily. Many of the former Warriors, like Charntay Poko, were not re-signed, possibly because of unavailability, given the part time nature of the overwhelming majority of the playing group.
There’s two ways the Knights’ season narrative could pan out, and I can’t decide which is more likely. The first is that the new recruits help bridge the gap to the rest of the league but there’s still work to do and the team ends up fifth or sixth again (again, I doubt they go winless). Part of that work to do will be finding a new home for club captain, Romy Teitzel, who will presumably make way at fullback for Upton. Where Teitzel ends up in the week one lineup might give us a few clues about the new direction of the team under new coach, local Ronald Griffiths. The announcement of his appointment to the role included this fun bit:
“Furthermore, I’m excited to take on this unique opportunity and continue my coaching development under the tutelage of Garth Brennan and Adam O’Brien.
Newcastle Knights Head of Pathways Garth Brennan was pleased to have Griffith’s head up the NRLW program.
“Ronnie is a great acquisition to our club and the right person for this appointment, said Brennan.Ronald Griffiths announced as NRLW Head Coach, 14 April 2022
Brennan left his role in June. Very Knights.
The second narrative is that the new talent is more than enough to turn the ship around and the Knights are competitive with the Dragons and Roosters and fighting for the premiership. On paper, it seems the numbers are not there, especially with the departure of the New Zealanders and turnover of all the Gold Stars bar Teitzel and Manzelmann, however, it’s also exactly the kind of thing that stats miss until it’s happened, so this outcome would also not surprise me. Newcastle might not be the best team, but they are certainly the most interesting to watch this season.
- Premierships: 0
- All time record: 2-3
- 2021 season: 5th, 2-3
- Elo: 1473 (2021 form), 1494 (class)
- Caps: 16 Interstate, 3 Tests
- Previous Production: 1348 Tz @ 57% retention (NRLW), 0 Tz (QRLW)
The Eels looked good for a finals spot after three weeks but their narrow win over the Knights in week 1 and then their inability to score a point against the Dragons in week 2, should have been clues that this team wasn’t in fact very good. The Broncos put that to bed by beating the Eels by such a margin, the Eels’ for and against knocked them out of the finals and put the Broncos into the minor premiership. The irony is that put the Roosters into the finals, who immediately knocked out the Broncos. It’s a funny game, rugby league.
Fullback Botille Vette-Welsh is still injured. Hooker Nita Maynard has left for the Broncos. They haven’t lost much other talent but also, haven’t signed up many players with NRLW experience. Vanessa Foliaki, she of the famous post-game photo from 2018 Origin, returns to first grade after an extended period off. Multi-sport talent, Brooke Walker, transfers from AFLW to NRLW to take up halfback duties and if the precedent set by previous 7s converts is anything to go by, she should be up for it. There aren’t many other headline names in the group but the Eels seems to have done a good job of sweeping up players out of state league, taking premiership winning Tigers, runners-up Sharks, Mounties, Bunnies, Bears and others, in contrast to last season’s approach where the Eels were very much tied to Mounties, many of whom have now been shed.
There are too many unknowns to get a real bearing on where the Eels will definitively sit in the hierarchy. Their signings from the NSW Women’s Premiership could be revelatory but I doubt it. Walker might turn the game on its head but she’s only one woman. Dean Widders returns as coach and I’m ambivalent if that merits any optimism. Overall, I’m pretty pessimistic on the Eels as a whole but they’ve got time to get organised ahead of next season when the influx of new teams is going to overturn the status quo.
Finally, Maddie Studdon is out of the league. She’ll be back next season as more jobs become available but, thanks to the complete dearth of reporting on the women’s game, it’s not clear if she’s taking a break for personal reasons, is injured or wasn’t good enough to cut it in a six team league. If the latter, that is a huge swing in perception from player of the match in Origin to now.
St George Illawarra Dragons
- Premierships: 0
- All time record: 8-9
- 2021 season: 2nd, 4-1, lost grand final
- Elo: 1541 (2021 form), 1480 (class)
- Caps: 24 Interstate, 9 Tests
- Previous Production: 3078 Tz @ 78% (NRLW), 256 Tz (QRLW)
Only three teams have ever contested the NRLW grand final: the Roosters, the Broncos and the Dragons. Of those three, only the Dragons do not have a title to their name, having lost in 2019 and 2021. I’m reluctant to say it because a) it’s the Dragons and b) recency bias, but 2022 might well be their year.
St George Illawarra have had the least turnover of any of the franchises. They haven’t tried to sign any big names and only lost three to retirement and other clubs. That cohesion and the return of Jamie Soward, who might actually know what he’s doing in this context, is a big plus for a team that finished with a 4-1 record and looked set to take the minor premiership until the Eels captiulated in the final round of the season.
Within that cohesion, there’s a lot to like. Kezie Apps, Elsie Albert, Teagan Berry, Rachael Pearson and Emma Tonegato are five talented footballers to be building a premiership campaign around. The emergence of Pearson in particular was significant and she’s now has incumbency on the NSW 7 jersey, albeit was relatively quiet in the game itself. The Dragons managed to more or less match the Broncos across the park and if they can eke a little bit more out of their team, they will be right in the mix.
The names coming in are predominantly from the Sharks, among others, which is interesting as the Dragons declined to run a branded women’s team in the state comp. They are another organisation that should be thinking about the conveyor belt and yet, despite the insistence by certain people that the Sydney framework is the only way to develop players, have not invested in a team in the level immediately below NRLW, the way the Roosters, Knights and others have done. With the Sharks joining the NRLW next year, the Dragons probably need this premiership more than anyone.
- Premierships: 1 (2021)
- All time record: 7-11
- 2021 season: 4th, 2-3, premiers
- Elo: 1493 (2021 form), 1506 (class)
- Caps: 30 Interstate, 8 Tests
- Previous Production: 3178 Tz @ 85% retention (NRLW), 806 Tz (QRLW)
I did suggest that if the Broncos weren’t going to win the premiership, it would be the Roosters. The Roosters didn’t play like that might be the case through the regular season but eventually proved me right in the finals. Thanks, I guess.
Picking up Destiny Brill is an extremely Roosters move and she joins a lineup already stacked with incumbent Blues centres Jess Sergis and Isabelle Kelly and former Maroons half Zahara Temara. Corban Baxter has been lost to Pregnancy RLFC and a few more, including Hannah Southwell, to Newcastle. The turnover should not be unexpected given they won the title and, despite this, the Roosters chart a third best retention rate in the league.
We can safely say the regular season underperformance was not necessarily reflective of the Roosters’ innate quality. The side played with a clunkiness that eventually worked itself out, as shown in their improving results and production over the course of the season, overturning two of their three regular season losses in the finals.
It’s hard not to cave to recency bias but if the Roosters avoid a slow start in 2022, there’s no reason they can’t go back-to-back. Whereas the Broncos and Dragons started hard and kept that pace going, the Roosters found another gear just as they needed it. The talent is there and John Strange, returning this season, might not be Jamie Feeney but he can do the job.