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The National Rugby League is driving forward the NRLW with an additional four teams in 2023 alongside a two match State of Origin series. It’s great news for the growing women’s game, but without professionals it will be hard to sustain.
In all previous editions of the NRLW, almost all players have been semi-professional, unable to live full time off rugby league.
And it has kind of suited the structure of the competition given that, even with pre-season factored in, it only runs for about 12 weeks.
However, with a 10 team competition, even if each side only plays each other once, you have a nine week regular season. Alongside a minimum two week finals series and at least six weeks of pre-season, players are looking at a 17 week commitment.
Add in the month they will need for State of Origin and the elite will be spending roughly six months playing or training for rugby league.
That’s no longer a part-time pursuit. That is full time.
Up until now, the NRLW has been something of an attractive option for some Rugby Sevens and AFLW players looking to play competitively without all of the travel. It has been pretty much stuck between Brisbane and Canberra.
But as the competition spreads out and travel increases, that attraction dissipates and soon they will be travelling almost as much as the men.
We have already seen the benefit of full time athletes in the NRLW.
Emma Tonegato starred for the Dragons and the Sky Blues in her first NRLW season having spent the previous seven years playing rugby union. While playing Sevens she was a full time athlete, able to spend all her time preparing and recovering.
It’s no secret either that the NRLW has only improved the more women play at that level with the support that brings.
Expanding to 10 teams is a gamble for the NRL. It was initially slated to only jump to eight teams, allowing a steady growth in numbers. However four new teams all at once creates the need for about 100 new players.
No one is saying the quality will be terrible, but it does run the risk of ending up with a more lopsided competition.
Without full time, professional contracts on offer, often it’s the teams with the best access to CBDs and employment options that can attract players.
It’s not a level playing field.
Added to this is a dilution of NRLW talent across the competition as the roughly 150 NRLW experienced players now have to be spread through an additional four teams.
There were issues in the early 2022 season with Newcastle struggling to attract players from out of town.
Fortunately, sides like the Wests Tigers and Cronulla Sharks are being admitted and both have strong junior women’s pathways. In fact former St George Illawarra Dragons and NSW fullback Sam Bremner was named 18th player for Origin having only played in the Harvey Norman Women’s Premiership for Cronulla.
Once again though, the key issue here is pay. This year, combining NRLW, state based competitions, Origin and the World Cup, the game’s elite female players will be playing close to 40 games this year.
In what world is that not professional?
The outdated viewpoint of many who, for some reason, think the NRLW’s push for professionalism is an attack on them, is that they don’t generate enough income to justify it.
The vast majority of NRL clubs are propped up by the governing body. If the NRL’s yearly grant disappeared, those clubs would disappear.
Women aren’t asking to be on millions of dollars, they’re asking to be paid a full time salary that would allow them to compete full time.
This benefits the current crop of players by giving them an opportunity to be professional athletes.
It benefits the lower grades as those girls and young women can see a career path in rugby league.
It benefits the sport as a whole, allowing these women to work full time on their skill development and fitness, providing an even better product.
Think about the differences in the game from the early 1990s to the 2000s. When the men’s game switched from part time to full time.
Performances improved, the game itself became a better spectacle given teams were more organised and in time the game became more valuable.
Perhaps the biggest benefit though of full time NRLW players is the improvement of player safety and a reduction in injury rates.
Women are 50 per cent more likely to suffer a concussion than their male counterparts and they also have been shown to experience a longer recovery period.
This discrepancy is due, in part, to women having thinner necks and therefore more vulnerable to fast acceleration of their heads during a collision.
Concussions though, are multifactorial injuries and elements such as fatigue and technique also play a part. Women who can train full time can become fitter and improve their technique at a faster rate than semi-professionals.
Women are also up to 3.5 times more likely to suffer an ACL injury than their male counterparts.
Part of this large difference is due to less muscle strength and endurance in women compared to men. Again, if women can train full time, they can get stronger and not only work on increasing the strength of the muscles surrounding the knee, but also work on improving their running technique and neuromuscular pathways.
Those are all tactics designed to reduce the risk of ACL injuries and this element often seems to be missed when discussing full professionalism in the NRLW.
In short, the NRL is building out the women’s competition as it should, but it needs to prioritise making them full time athletes to not only improve the game, but help safeguard the careers of its players.
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