NSW won a thrilling encounter over Queensland 16-10 but the bigger story was the new level of interest the women’s game generated.

By Daniel Herborn

Posted on June 25, 2018

During the match, Phil Gould, whose commentary on rugby league often runs to the acerbic, repeatedly marvelled at the frenetic pace of the game as well as the ferocity and skill on display. NSW centre Isabelle Kelly received the Nellie Doherty medal for best player on the ground but the crunching defence of the tireless Simaima Taufa was equally eye-catching.

After full-time, Queensland women’s coach Jason Hetherington said the quality of the standalone match and the level of support it generated meant it should be extended into a three-game format to mirror the men’s series. Cricketer Alyssa Healy echoed these thoughts on Twitter, writing: “Give ‘em three games!”

More than 839,000 people watched the match on Channel 9 with another 171,000 tuning in on Fox League. Interest in the game was particularly strong in Sydney and Brisbane where the combined audience peaked at 456,000.

A further 6,824 fans attended the match at North Sydney Oval, setting a new record for a women’s rugby league crowd. The handsome fig tree-lined ground also played host to the inaugural women’s Ashes Test match in November 2017.

Representative women’s teams from Queensland and New South Wales had played each before but this match was the first to be promoted under the State of Origin banner. The men’s State of Origin is one of the most popular events on the Australian calendar, dominating the news cycle, garnering monster television ratings and packing stadia for the three-match series every year.

Brad Fittler, a former Australian captain and current coach of the men’s NSW State of Origin team was full of praise for the match.
“I thought it was fantastic,” Fittler told reporters.

“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.”

NSW and Queensland Premiers Gladys Berejiklian and Annastacia Palaszczuk and cricketer Dave Warner were among those tweeting about the game.

The State of Origin fixture was just one part of a sport that is coming like a freight train to take its place in the Australian sporting landscape.

In September 2018, the first NRL Women’s Premiership will take place. The Brisbane Broncos, New Zealand Warriors, Sydney Roosters and St. George Illawarra Dragons will compete in the tournament with plans to add more teams in coming years.

Despite the rapid growth in interest in the women’s game, it remains semi-professional with players juggling day jobs. NSW captain Maddie Studdon told the ABC she had to give up her job as a truck driver after her rugby league commitments got in the way of work.

“Welcome to 2018”

Last week, the NRL received a Pride in Sport award. These awards from the not-for-profit Pride in Sport recognise organisations who are seeking to make sport more inclusive for LGBTI people.

The NRL also drew plaudits when it slapped down a commenter who objected to an instantly iconic photo of rival players Karina Brown and Vanessa ‘Ness’ Foliaki kissing after the game.

Replying to a Facebook comment that claimed “there may be young girls coming through put off by this”, the NRL social media account replied: “Welcome to 2018…can’t wait for you to join us!”

Elsewhere, the NRL account said: “If we can post a (picture) of (Queensland men’s player) Cooper Cronk and his wife Tara (Rushton) kissing, then we can share a photo of Karina Brown and Ness Foliaki sharing a moment too.”

Brown and Foliaki have been together since 2014. In an earlier profile of the couple, they offered differing stories of how their relationship started though both agree it began in a bar after they had been teammates in Australia’s loss to the New Zealand Kiwi Ferns.

Brown said: “I saw her eyes light up and she came over, bought me a drink and the rest is history.”

Foliaki offered a somewhat less romantic version of events.

“We were drinking at the bar and she decided to shout everyone a drink and have a skolling competition” she recalled.

“(She) couldn’t beat me. I smashed her. It started from there.”