NRLW, Origin expansion exciting steps in move toward full-time professionalism

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Four new NRLW teams entering the competition by 2024, Origin becoming a two-game series next year, pay increases and private health insurance – today is a proud day for rugby league.

The ARL Commission’s announcements make for great reading and the timing of the changes looks just right.

NRLW will add two clubs next year and two more in 2024 to become a 10-team competition. When the last expansion announcement was made, the process was too quick.

Three new teams were announced in June with the season initially planned to start in August. I had many questions about how the new clubs would be in a position to form a team, appropriately support the members of that team and get them ready in such a short space of time.

Maddie Studdon of the Eels celebrates with teammates.

Maddie Studdon of the Eels celebrates with teammates after kicking the match-winning field goal against the Newcastle Knights. (Photo by Ashley Feder/Getty Images)

In a way, the postponement of the Women’s Premiership to the start of 2022 helped these clubs by giving them the time needed to put a team on the park.

This next phase of expansion will give the prospective new clubs time to consider how they will appropriately fund their women’s program and how to ensure they are ready to support their new female players.

There is still no word on who these new clubs will be with an announcement expected in July, but my strong preference is before we include any more Sydney teams, that we consider other regions that already have a functioning pathway.

If the NRL men’s competition was to start again from scratch tomorrow, we would not have as many Sydney teams, so why would we make the same mistake in the women’s game?

At every point of the expansion conversation, they key point is depth not width. It would be silly to expand too quickly, dilute the talent and depend on non-existent pathways.

My prediction will be North Queensland and Canberra will be the two clubs introduced in 2023, with the New Zealand Warriors to be brought back into the fold in 2024.

But we can’t continue to expand the competition, expect more from the athletes in terms of training and time away from home without addressing pay. It is not appropriate that elite athletes be forced to exist in a state of financial insecurity to play the game that they love.

The announcement by the NRL will see the introduction of a salary cap system which will increase average salaries by 28%. For the 2022 season later this year, a salary cap of $350,000 per team will be introduced and will also allow clubs to contract two marquee players as full-time employees with additional salary cap dispensation.

For all contracted NRLW players, private health Insurance will also be provided. This is a necessary and important change. I particularly want to applaud that decision. When we talk about equality for women in sport; it is about so much more than pay. It is also about ensuring that these athletes have the support around them to succeed including medical benefits and support, access to facilities and access to wellbeing support.

But there’s more than just change to the NRLW. State of Origin will be a two-game series next year. The QRL announced last year that it would be offering the same payments to their male and female Origin representatives. This means the Maroons will pay up to $15,000 to players who take part in this year’s women’s Origin clash.

This is crucial to ensure that the best players can compete in this series. When James Tedesco is called into State of Origin camp, he can pack a bag and be ready to go into camp straight away, because playing footy is his full-time job.

Our women still cannot do this and before they go into Origin camp need to make sure their commitments away from footy are looked after. Queensland’s decision last year will go some way to rectifying this and I am hopeful NSW will follow suit.

The NRL is also moving in the right direction, announcing representative payments will increase from $4000 to $6000 while All Stars payments will increase from $1600 to $3000.

This a really proud day for rugby league. The criticism of the NRL has been constant, in particular about the decision to take it slow and expand at a sustainable pace. But this pace has meant the game can take it slow and ensure there is enough talent to sustain our brilliant and exciting competition.

Today is another step towards professionalisation. Let’s celebrate this and then think about what the next steps are to make our female athletes even more successful.

I’m excited for the next two years, particularly for the fans who will soon get to experience what it feels like to have both a men’s team and a women’s team, the young women who will get the chance to represent their clubs but most of all for the next generation of boys and girls who continue to get the message that elite sport can be played by everyone.

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