A Dive into the 2021* Women’s Rugby League World Cup

With the men’s competition well underway, it’s time to take a look at the women’s tournament. Unfortunately, I don’t have anything like the data for the women’s game that I do for the men’s, so we are forced to rely on qualitative assessments. Fortunately, the hierarchy is better established than the men’s and I think the relative pecking order will be something like – spoiler alert – Australia, New Zealand, England, Papua New Guinea, France, Cook Islands, Canada and then Brazil. Maybe you could swap England and New Zealand, or maybe Papua New Guinea, France and Cook Islands, but it’s not going to be a group stage littered with upsets.

Let’s break down the four likely semi-finalists in more detail.


  • PWR Rating: 1600 / 1st
  • IRL Ranking: 1st / 100%
  • All-time record: 28-21 (since 2013: 12-2)

The Jillaroos haven’t played a game since 2019, mirroring the complancency of their male colleagues. Fortunately, there’s been nothing like the defections to other nations to contend with, largely because this tournament is both smaller but paradoxically wider in scope, than the men’s. Interestingly, Australia finished that game with a lower PWR rating than New Zealand opposition but have a higher one now, due to New Zealand actually playing games in the interim and losing some ground. Irrespective, the IRL agrees that the two-time defending world champions are still the best in the world.

The NRLW has only been played since the last tournament and even in that short window, the quality of women’s football in Australia has exploded. This year’s squad would likely have a few members who, between two NRLW seasons, Origin, a few state cup games and now $30,000 for this World Cup campaign, could claim to be full-time footballers. By 2025, the entire squad may be well fully professional.

I would expect that squad then to be radically different to the one selected now. There has been a clear preference by selectors to favour experience over form. The average Jillaroo is 25.5 years old and not all of the players over that mark played their best football in 2022. I’m specifically referring to Ali Brigginshaw, who has earned the right to as many plaudits as she likes and the right to depart when suits her, but in reality, is not able to keep pace with neither the march of time nor the march of progress. That would also be applicable to several other players and you’d be hard pressed to argue that this roster represents the 24 best female footballers in the country based on 2022’s play.

Still, it probably won’t matter either way. Brigginshaw (and perhaps others) can go off into the sunset, a champion for likely the third time. The torch passing between the last vestiges of the generation that didn’t have proper pathways and the subsequent women who never knew anything else will be interesting to watch moving forward.

New Zealand

  • PWR Rating: 1578 / 2nd
  • IRL Ranking: 2nd / 95%
  • All-time record: 39-8 (since 2013: 9-5)

Traditionally, New Zealand has been the power in the women’s game and that was true prior to the 2013 World Cup, the Kiwi Ferns having won the 2000, 2003 and 2008 editions. As is typical in rugby league, the greater financial might and concentration of resources has seen the balance shift in Australia’s favour.

A lot of the hand-wringing about the sacrifices made during the pandemic focussed on male footballers. The lesser told story is the evaporation of the New Zealand Warriors women’s franchise out of the NRLW and the impact that’s had. When facing down Samoa or Tonga, it hasn’t really mattered to the Kiwi Ferns, who remain a clear class above but in the cut and thrust of a World Cup, that could be significant. New Zealand-based players have had to make do, spreading themselves across the Gold Coast and Newcastle in the 2021* season and then largely disappearing from view for the 2022 season. The latter seems to be more likely down to the logistics of living away from home and the paltry support provided to the women’s game than a lack of capability, but it also makes for an interesting team list.

Krystal Rota, who has 9 previous caps for New Zealand and 10 NRLW games under her belt, is listed on League Unlimited’s squad sheet as a player from South Auckland’s Manurewa Marlins, which somewhat belies who she is. 16 of the 24 players are listed next to their most recent NRLW clubs with 7 from local football in New Zealand and one Tweed Heads Seagull. Where they come from probably won’t matter a great deal when they are led by one of the finer halfbacks in the game and Dally M winner, Raecene McGregor. Apii Nicholls might not quite be it at fullback but she will be better for a run with the Titans. Up front, we’ve got a formidable trio of Roxy Murdoch-Masila, Amber Hall and Georgia Hale to bust heads and eat metres.

While there are plenty of bright spots, New Zealand probably don’t have enough depth across the park or on the bench to hang with Australia when the time comes to get serious.


  • PWR Rating: 1239 / 3rd
  • IRL Ranking: 3rd / 93%
  • All-time record: 21-10 (since 2013: 11-4)

I’m going to be upfront and confirm that my knowledge of English women’s football is very limited and I am unlikely to do the subject justice. However, I think it would be more disrespectful to skip over it entirely, so we’ll just have to persevere.

For example, I’m unable to explain why the women’s Super League grand final was contested between York City, the minor premiers, and Leeds (eventually won by Leeds, 12-4) and yet the England squad only has four Knights with most of the places divided between Leeds and St Helens players. Only the Super League semi-finalists are represented at all, a fact which starts to make a little more sense once you unpick the structure of the competition and realise the only other team in the top tier went 0-8.

I’m able to recognise some of the names, like Queensland cricketer and England halfback, Courtney Winfield-Hill, playing a counterpart role to Victor Radley in the 2021 World Cup. There’s also Caitlin Beevers, Fran Goldthorpe and Jodie Cunningham, vice captain at the last World Cup. Without a World Club Challenge or even any noticeable transfers between the hemispheres, I’m lacking context as to where to place these names against their southern hemisphere rivals. If the gaps between the NRLW and Women’s Super League is anything comparable to the men’s equivalents, then England as third best nation seems right. However like their male counterparts, they don’t have either Australia or New Zealand in their side of the bracket, a coincidence in a home World Cup so unlikely that it borders on suspicious.

This bonus may well be enough to get them into a final, only having to overcome (probably) New Zealand in a double-header in York on November 14. Home ground advantage will be a huge boon, albeit diminished marginally by the lack of Yorkers, and should not be underestimated by the Kiwi Ferns or, indeed, the Jillaroos.

Papua New Guinea

  • PWR Rating: 845 / 8th
  • IRL Ranking: 4th / 56%
  • All-time record: 1-7 (since 2013: 1-7)

There’s only three common dominators in this country. One is God. Two is Tok Pisin, the language we all speak. Three is rugby league.

Power Meri, 2018

Power Meri depicted the rise of women’s rugby league in Papua New Guinea, one of two countries where rugby league is the national sport. The team in the film was the first ever assembled, stapled together for the 2017 World Cup. The 2017 Orchids summarily got their asses handed to them (this is not the point of the movie but it is a statement of fact). Two years later, they beat a visiting England team to register their first ever Test win, justifying the faith and effort put into the program. Like many southern hemisphere nations, opportunities for play have been limited since 2019 due to a combination of pandemic, patriarchy and apathy, with only a 64-6 thrashing at the hands of Australia’s PM XIII to prepare for this tournament.

Given that, it remains to be seen how PNG will actually perform but have lucked out into an astonishingly easy group with England, Brazil and Canada (albeit, PNG lost to Canada in their last outing). The Orchids of Papua New Guinea have two NRLW-calibre players in Elsie Albert, and if you don’t know who she is now, you will be the time she’s done with your team, and 2021* Eels hooker, Therese Aiton. They are bolstered by a half dozen state cup players (three Souths Logan, one Easts, one Wynnum Manly and one Newcastle) with the rest of the squad being domestic, many of which got a taste of representative football in the PM XIII’s game.

Unlike 2017, the expectations will be totally different for the Orchids and I expect them to bring home at least two wins.


  • Cook Islands: PWR – 896 / 6th | IRL – 11th / 15% | 3-4 (1-2)
  • France: PWR – 965 / 5th | IRL – 5th / 53% | 4-21 (3-7)
  • Canada: PWR – 854 / 7th | IRL – 6th / 46% | 4-3 (4-3)
  • Brazil: PWR – 813 / unranked | IRL – 17th / 6% | 1-0 (1-0)

Rugby League Project hasn’t recorded a result for the Cook Islands’ women’s team outside of a World Cup. They debuted in the 2003 World Cup, beating Tokelau and snatching a draw with Great Britain, and seemingly didn’t play again until the 2017 World Cup where they lost to Australia and New Zealand but beat England. That’s enough of a resume to get back into the women’s World Cup, with it’s slightly odd application process that will hopefully be replaced with proper qualifiers for the 16 team version in 2025. The Moana will be led by Titans’ half Kimiora Breayley-Nati, having missed out on New Zealand selection, and joined by 2022 premiership winner Kiana Takairangi of the Knights and fellow Titan April Ngatupuna. There’s an excellent opportunity for some fringe frist graders to play themselves up and into a contract in the expanded NRLW for 2023, so they shouldn’t be taken lightly.

France’s Elite Feminin was cancelled for two successive years due to the pandemic. This could prove to be problematic as the French squad relies entirely on domestic players, with only Laureane Biville being known to the southern hemisphere as she flirted around the edges of NRLW selection for the then fledgling Titans. While France might have had a chance of making the semi-finals if they shared a group with Papua New Guinea, unfortunately, they are drawn with Australia, New Zealand and the Cook Islands, almost certainly assuring them of third place at best.

Brazil and Canada are huge inclusions from an expansionist perspective but, even though the Ravens did win a game in 2017, 22-8 over PNG, I’m not expecting a particularly competitive showing from either of the nations from the Americas. Brazil did run France a lot closer than expected in a warm-up game, losing on 16-4, while Canada lost to Ireland, 8-6 (neither result is included in the above stats). The former result would be a lot more encouraging than the latter and while I would expect Canada to get home on sheer dint of experience, having played the game a lot more, Brazil might spring an upset at the bottom of group A.


The likely semi finals would be Papua New Guinea versus Australia and New Zealand versus England. The latter could be a contest and it would not surprise me to see the home crowd get England home, even though the Kiwi Ferns should have the edge on paper. If the recent PM XIIIs are anything to go by, the Jillaroos will comfortably work their way past the Orchids in the other semi.

That sets up a final between Australia and a coin flip of New Zealand and England. Anyone can win on their day and it’s far from a sure thing but you’d expect the Jillaroos to take home the crown once more.