WRLWC The rapid growth of women’s football makes the World Cup exciting
In case you missed the overwhelming pre-tournament vibes emanating from ‘Camp Australia’ on the Gold Coast, here’s the headline: “The Jillaroos Are Excited.”
Their opening pool game at the sixth Women’s Rugby World Cup will be the first time the Australian women’s national team have played a test match since October 2019. The reason? I’m sure you can guess (hint: it starts with C and was/is a global pandemic).
Now the 24 women considered Australia’s best rugby players available are in the UK, days away from a third successive World Cup defense which begins against the Cook Islands at York’s LNER Community Stadium on November 3. Their other group stage clashes, against France and the Kiwi Ferns, will take place at the same venue.
Despite some high-profile withdrawals ahead of pre-departure camp at Grifith University on the Gold Coast, the Jillaroos will enter the tournament as heavy favourites. This endemic favoritism is attributable both to the winner’s status of the last two tournaments and to the rapid growth and professionalism of the national game. The prep week was as much a peak performance peak as it was a soccer camp; players were constantly evaluated and analyzed by sports scientists while undergoing elite training programs at elite facilities. The general objectives – in terms of the basic tournament – maximum fitness and maximum concentration. The Jillaroos have no intention of losing this World Cup.
Thirteen debutants have earned national stripes thanks to the NRLW’s stirring form, forcing coach Brad Donald and his fellow managers to deny starts to a string of starters.
“I’ve said that many times about the work people put into the lanes, the state leagues, the NRL, the grassroots clubs,” Brad Donald told reporters at camp. “Because the top of the game exploded, as did the bottom.”
“It was difficult to get 40 names on a list…so narrowing it down to 24 was extremely difficult.”
To borrow one of the main clichés describing the rugby league team, the Jillaroos squad are “a solid mix of youth and experience”.
Cliché or not, an apt description for this team. Debutants such as 21-year-old Knights backrower Caitlan Johnston lit the fire for the Blues in the 2022 State of Origin; now she shares the stage with Maroons mainstay Ali Brigginshaw, a true modern-day great. Brigginshaw is the team’s longest-serving co-captain and player, with 17 Tests behind her. She threw a broken figure when the Eels rounded up the Broncos out of the NRLW a month ago. Expect her to now take that hurt on the rest of the world. Expect the same from Emma Tonegato, the Dragons’ two-time international (and Rio 2016 Olympic gold medalist), who was called up when Knights full-back Tamika Upton withdrew with an injury.
Brigginshaw, Tonegato and Roosters full-back Sam Bremner were all present for Australia’s 2013 World Cup victory. There are five players left from the 2017 edition. Youth trumps experience, but you don’t would trade the experience for anything in the world.
Bremner, Dally M Fullback of the Year, gets a co-captain alongside Brigginshaw after a previous start as captain in 2018 was thwarted by injury. His international career has been in carbon freezing since 2016.
Meanwhile, Dragons favorite Kezie Apps resumes an international career that began in 2014. Bantamweight Isabelle Kelly and Parramatta’s Saimama Taufa return as veterans, despite being just 26 and 28 respectively . Taufa in particular would be the subject of nightmares for her rivals after a devastating season for the Eels: 163 yards covered and 35 tackles per game, plus a big place in the final.
Take a look at the young end of the list; there will be a long-awaited debut for Broncos center Tarryn Aiken and a big-stage introduction for dynamic Roosters lock Keilee Joseph. Players like Shaylee Bent will be living dreams on many fronts, having almost ignored Brad Donald’s phone call following Newcastle superstar Millie Boyle’s withdrawal.
“I wasn’t going to answer it at first because I was a little nervous and I thought he was just calling me to tell me why I didn’t make the team,” she explains. .
“But then he explained that one of the girls had dropped out and I was next and asked if I was available to come to England. So I said of course I was… I’ve never really been abroad.”
Eight nations will face off in the tournament, including newcomer Brazil. There was a time when New Zealand was the undisputed queen of women’s football; holding the mantle for 13 years before Australia ended their reign in 2013. The Trans Tasman rivalry will be reignited in the third group stage match on November 11, and most likely again in the round of 16. The Jillaroos relish multiple matchups with the power and passion of the Kiwi Ferns and outgoing NRLW Dally M medalist Raecene McGregor.
Critics of the men’s tournament have focused on the lopsided scores, as top-flight nations ruthlessly dismantle their much less seasoned opponents. Average winning margins of over 50 points make for poor reading, but it’s fair to say that some critics narrowly miss the real goal of a Rugby League World Cup.
Given the quality displayed in the rapidly expanding NRLW over recent seasons, a similar scenario will play out in the Women’s World Cup, but there will be some great moments along the way.
Gold Coast Titans duo Kimiora Breayley-Nati and April Ngatupuna will turn up for Cook Islands Moana and bring game-changing potential with them; but the minnow nation will struggle to make a dent in the Jillaroos opener. They have beaten England in the past, however, which could well cause some damage in the group stage.
France has 11 players from the Catalan Dragons in the women’s super league. A certain familiarity on the pitch could be enough to earn them a first victory in a World Cup match. It won’t be against Australia.
Game 3 against New Zealand will be a test game in every way. McGregor was nearly unstoppable at halfback for the Roosters in NRLW 2022, evoking 10 assists in five games. Prop Amber Hall steams up the fun with a Broncos jersey and dials it up a notch in the Kiwi Ferns kit. Apii Nicholls-Pualau is equally devastating at the back for the Titans. Talent everywhere, but unlikely to match across the park with the Jillaroos.
Outside the pool, threats are slim on the pitch. Tara Stanley is the full-back who will carry England’s hopes. These hopes never carried them further than the semi-finals of a World Cup. Stanley is the reigning woman of steel after leading York to an unlikely Super League grand final, but she is not expected to deliver overall success for the hosts. Sign them up for a big win in the tournament opener against Brazil’s Amazonas and a place in the last four.
A special mention for the Canadian Ravens super-achievers here too. Laura Mariu is a 41-year-old Kiwi Ferns icon with five World Cups behind her, who will spearhead Canada’s prospects after securing eligibility through her mother. The Ravens made their tournament debut in 2017, beating Papua New Guinea to book a fairy tale place in the semi-finals. Revenge is on the way in the group stage of this event, with PNG Orchids expected to rally behind two excellent sources; one being the national pride, the other, the powerful mainstay of the Dragons, Elise Albert. This match could provide the second most enticing of the group stages, behind the epic Jillaroos vs Kiwi Ferns.
It’s hard to see a pound-for-pound title fight for the Jillaroos coming from a nation that isn’t New Zealand. Even then, it will take a small miracle for Australia not to retain the trophy at Old Trafford on November 19. There is merit in any concern about the strength of the international game, and the risk of a scoreline bust is real.
With all that in mind, consider this: does it even matter?
Test footy is back after a painful hiatus. The NRLW’s success gave the World Cup a platform and player base it had never had before. Australia introduces 13 debutants to the international scene. The tournament’s biggest threat is playing for our biggest rival. And Latin America is making its first foray into international women’s rugby league.
It’s time to get excited.