analysis:  Why the NRLW is on the dawn of a new era

It seems like only yesterday the sun was shining in Redcliffe as the Roosters completed their resurrection to claim their first NRLW premiership and now a new season is upon us.

As most NRLW seasons have tended to be, this one will be historic when it begins on Saturday.

In this case, it will be the last time the league has just six teams, which comes a little over six months after the first season with six teams.

Because the NRLW is so new, history is still being made all the time and, in the early days of any new league, a lot of the history is based around firsts.

Those milestones — first match, first win, first loss, first season, first premiership, first dynasty, first premiership from a team outside that first dynasty at the first standalone grand final — are important because history is important.

They inspire future generations, such as the first wave of players who grew up watching NRLW and who barely know a world without it, such as St George Illawarra rookie Monalisa Soliola, who are beginning to filter into the league.

However, eventually, a moment arrives when a sport cannot exist on firsts alone and for the NRLW, that time has come.

A four-team league is a beginning, a six-team league is a competition and next year, when the NRLW increases to 10 teams, the ultimate goal of having a 16-team league will finally be on the horizon. It'll just be a speck in the distance, many miles away, but it'll be visible.

There will still be a lot of firsts, and that will be enough to sustain the new teams.

However, for the league as a whole, the action must speak louder than the words. The on-field product has to stand on its own two feet and it has to keep standing, even when it is wobbling with growing pains.

Fortunately for the NRL, the league is more than capable of doing so. By slow-playing expansion over the first few years of the competition, there was always more elite-level talent than there was roster spots to be filled.

It meant the NRLW could avoid many of the unfortunate — but necessary — realities that come with a developing league: things such as blowouts, or a huge gap between the haves and have-nots or a poor overall standard of play.

Those things are bound to arrive in the future. With a competition increasing in size by 150 per cent over a three-season period, they cannot be avoided.

A list of more firsts isn't enough to weather that kind of storm, but there is enough interest, intrigue and quality that the NRLW doesn't need to lean on that crutch anymore.

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For this season, the questions are myriad:

  • Will the Dragons' grand final loss spur them to a new kind of furious brilliance?
  • Or will that loss to the Roosters be the thing they never really get through?
  • Brisbane are to-the-manor-born, but can they continue to be one of the competition's powerhouses after losing their two best players in Millie Boyle and Tamika Upton?
  • Can Boyle and Upton — and a few Newcastle products who became premiership-winning Tricolours before they decided to come home — lift the Knights, winless last season, into finals contention?
  • Can lightning strike twice at Bondi?
  • What of Brooke Walker, Parramatta's AFLW and rugby sevens convert?
  • Will the Eels rue the decision to move on from veteran halfback Maddie Studdon?

The improvement of the women's game also means questions must be asked of how it is administered and presented.

A real discussion must be had if the season's current place on the calendar — beginning in the week's before the men's finals series, before a double header on grand final day — is still the best option.

This year's first season — a product of the 2021 campaign's COVID-enforced delay — took place from February to April and may have been a glimpse of the future.

By starting the season before the men's kick-off, it ensured the women's game had its own temporary place in the spotlight at a time of the year when the hunger for rugby league is at a serious high after the long Steeden-less summer.

The stand-alone grand final in Redcliffe felt like a more prestigious occasion than having the match on the same day as the men's decider, even though it was two Sydney teams meeting far from home. You didn't need anything else other than the biggest game of the NRLW season for that day to feel special.

It's a sign that the women's game doesn't need to be attached to the men's game like a vegetable that precedes something sweet. The NRLW has enough of a history outside of those milestones for compelling players, teams and storylines to take the sport forward on its own merits.

The firsts have happened, and they can be the foundation for a brighter future. But it's time to build something else, something greater, something that lasts forever. The NRLW has all the pieces. It's time to put them together.

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