• Jonathan Brannan

WOMEN'S STATE OF ORIGIN GROWS TO UNIMAGINABLE HEIGHTS

Updated: Nov 14, 2020

This article was originally published on July 3rd, 2019.


What is an inspiration for you? It can be a person, a place, or even a moment. For many Australians last week New South Wales' five-eighth Kirra Dibb.


The image of blood pouring from Dibb's right eyebrow was rugby league in its rawest form, and State of Origin series at its inspiring best.

State of Origin


The State of Origin series is more than a sporting contest, for many Australians. It is often referred to as Australia's greatest sporting rivalry, the series is often classed as the highest level of rugby league in the world.


The interstate encounters between New South Wales and Queensland date back to 1908 when the southern rivals got the better of their opponents with an initial 43-0 thrashing.


That match signaled the start of a 70-year era dominated by the side then nicknamed the Blues, which won more than 70% of games against the Queenslanders, who would take the nickname the Maroons.


With the lack of competitiveness came the diminishing relevance of interstate rugby league in the late 1970s, resulting in the conception of State of Origin, in which players were selected on the state they were initially from, rather than their current state of residence.


Given the all-clear from the NSWRFL ahead of the 1980 clash, Queensland demonstrated their competitiveness with an early win, giving credibility to what soon became an annual three-match series. In the decades since, the State of Origin Shield has travelled across borders on multiple occasions as both states have enjoyed periods of success.


In 2018, the NRL launched the Women's Premiership, and it chose to develop the new Women's State of Origin.

A Unique Style


For the pioneers of the women’s game, the first Women's State of Origin game was a moment they never thought would come and it was a thrilling encounter that the Blues won 16-10.


However, the main talking point was the new level of interest that the series generated for women's rugby league. Over 1 million people watched the game live on television, with audiences from across the country. A further 6,824 fans attended the match at North Sydney Oval, setting a new record for a women’s rugby league crowd.


Brad Fittler, the current coach of the men’s NSW State of Origin team was full of praise for the match, stating “I thought it was fantastic.”


“Women’s rugby league has come a long way. The quality with which they were playing was exceptional. I think there is a bright future for rugby league with women…There were some big moments in the game, it was quite incredible.”


One of the biggest talking points came after the final whistle as Karina Brown, Queensland captain, and Vanessa Foliaki, New South Wales lock, were pictured kissing. The photograph exploded on social media and gave the NRL one of their first openly LGBTQ+ moments.


The display of affection highlighted that the women's game will be doing it in their own style. Foliaki said the women's rugby league community had been supportive of the couple's relationship.


"I think it's more accepted now and the Jillaroos make it feel like home. The coaching staff are supportive. We're feeling all the love," Foliaki said.


Fast forward 12 months and the Women's State of Origin received a massive boost from Queensland Rugby League after they announced that they will formally recognize the women's team as 'the Maroons.'


Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk (@AnnastaciaMP) stated “This decision to officially adopt the name for both men’s and women’s state teams clearly recognizes that the women’s competition is keenly followed and fought with equal passion.


“Queenslanders know the dedication and honor that goes with representing our state, and appropriately now the women’s team officially share the Maroon identity.”


NSW would claim back-to-back wins for the second year, with a sellout crowd of over 10,000 creating a unique atmosphere for the event.


Stuart Clark, NSW Rugby League’s COO, further commented “It’s been wonderful for everyone from the pre-game to the game, to two to three thousand people mobbing the girls after the game,” Stuart said as thousands burst on to the oval at full-time to meet their Origin heroines.


“It’s certainly here to stay. While everyone says (women’s league) is a growth area, it is also about equality; about giving these girls an opportunity that in the past, they wouldn’t have got.”

Importance


The growth of the game was a great sign for the sport and former stars Allana Ferguson and Ruan Sims said it was incredible to see.


“I was (a bit jealous). But just sitting back and watching it, it really is a dream come true,” Ferguson said after the match. “Growing up playing with the boys, we didn’t have this. Seeing the crowd and just how many boys and girls are out there watching these women play footy and such a great quality game of footy, it just warms my heart to see they have role models.”


Sims added “You can’t be what you can’t see. So if we’re seeing these women being out there and playing at these levels and playing in front of these kinds of crowds, being idolized by all these sorts of people, it’s going to drag more and more people to the games.


“It’s going to drag more and more people into the stadiums and then women’s rugby league will really kick off more than it already has since 2013.”


Many Australian sports fans are beginning to recognize what women's sport is bringing to the table in terms of excitement, wholesomeness, and determination. Australia is seeing success through audience growth across women's sports including netball, AFL, and most recently, rugby league.


There’s something about women’s sport that creates a friendly, joyful, and supportive atmosphere. And that’s exactly what was seen with the Women's State of Origin. Gone are the days of girls having to pay their own way to games. The women's game along with the Origin Series has proven that it deserves to be seen as a legitimate professional competition, and it is an exciting time to watch women's rugby league.


“Three years ago there was no elite girls’ rugby league competition for this age group,” NSW coach Andrew Patmore said. “There has been a massive improvement in that time and it has broadened the base of quality players to choose from for the women’s premiership and Origin in general.”


"Our players have come a long way in a short space of time; and I expect to see even more improvement following the work they’ve already put in through our club competitions and QRL development programs."


Along with giving more girls the ability to develop into elite players. The Origin Series has highlighted the games' potential for new partnerships. Facebook is set to expand its sports broadcasting in Australia and is set to show both men's and women's AFL and NRL highlights. This will include a weekly wrap up show that will promote the women's game.


“Each month 16 million Australians come together on the platform to connect and share with family and friends, and key sporting moments are regularly a focus of conversation," said Will Easton, Managing Director of Facebook Australia. "Sports fans on Facebook are one of the most highly engaged communities and these partnerships with the codes offer followers exciting content to engage with in new ways.


"We’re thrilled that through Facebook, Aussies will be able to get the highlights from both sports and live original programs.”


The world is changing before our very eyes and the beneficiaries will be the next generation of girls and boys who will grow up in a world where it is completely the norm for both men and women to have the opportunity to play rugby league at a domestic, state and international level.

Future


Questions have already begun about how best to present the series in the coming years. Do they copy the men's game and create a three-game series and move away from the one-off game and do they move the game from the North Sydney Oval.


NSW captain Kezie Apps (@KezieApps) said a three-game series is still years away. As for a three-game series to be played alongside the men’s series, Apps said the talent pool wasn’t deep enough just yet. “A few years,” Apps predicted. “We’ve still got to build the playing pool and get everyone up to that level that can handle this level.


“Because injuries and stuff can happen. Game two you might have to bring more people into the game and then game three as well. So you want that quality to be there for the whole three games.”


However, it’s positive that this is a conversation we are now able to have. It’s now not a case of whether the women should play a curtain raiser during the year, but where next year’s Origin will be held seeing North Sydney Oval could barely hold this year's crowd. The next women’s State of Origin will be held in Queensland, which gives the NRL to build the game up to a point where 20,000 spectators becomes the new normal.


So often when talking about next steps in the women’s game, the assumption is always that we should be doing more, whether it be playing more games in the Origin series, introducing more teams in the NRLW, or giving the women the opportunity to play in front of bigger audiences at larger grounds. But the key for women in the NRL is sustainable growth and developing a pathway to ensure that success continues for many years.