Opinion – History was made last night as the first ever Warriors Women’s side strode out onto Mt Smart Stadium.
It was fitting that the evening sky was slowly fading from pink to black for the NRL’s Women In League round, because it signified the sun going down on the a lazy way of feminising a traditionally male product.’Shrink it and pink it’ was the accepted method of targeting a female sporting audience, but now it’s being replaced a meaningful investment in the women’s game.
It was somewhat telling that the promotional image on the big screen for the Women In League round was a female touch judge, because up until now being on the sidelines was as close as a woman could get.
This wasn’t the first official game in the new NRL Women’s competition, or the first time female rugby league had been seen integrated into a men’s event. Last year the Women’s World Cup ran concurrently with the men’s, and the finals were played as a double header. Memorably, the women’s matches at the now-defunct annual NRL Nines provided probably the biggest hits and strongest crowd reaction.
But this was the first time a concerted effort has been put into the development of the women’s game in the most consistent forum that league has.
The NRL is a major part of the sporting landscape for six months a year on both sides of the Tasman, and attaching a women’s competition to the existing one will mean unprecedented TV exposure.
That is, of course, if the clubs can make it work. The beginnings are cautious, with four teams set to play out what can be best described as a pilot scheme for a wider competition. The Warriors will take on the Broncos, Dragons and Roosters during the men’s NRL finals series, and spirits are high that it won’t take long to grow.
It certainly didn’t take the Warriors long to get to work against their Auckland opponents last night, racing to a 26-0 lead at half-time. Winger Amber Kani had the honour of scoring the first ever try for the side, after only five minutes.
However, the second half was a different story, with some strong Auckland defence leading to only a try apiece. The final score was 32-4 and gave plenty for coach Luisa Avaiki to reflect on post game.
“That game allowed us to see what we still need to be working on. We had goals in mind of what we wanted to do with our gameplan, and in the second half we really went away from that.” Ms Avaiki said.
“The positive is our goal line and scramble defence was excellent. So it was good to see us tested in that sense, and what works and what’s not in terms of positions.”
But while the performance itself can be picked apart by the coaching staff before the next training, the fixture’s undeniable symbolism was a source of immense pride for skipper Laura Mariu.
“It’s one of those days you never thought would happen. Throughout my career I never thought we’d be part of the NRL, and for this moment to come to fruition is a huge moment for women in rugby league.” she said.
“It probably didn’t hit me till I was traveling to the game today. I’ve played with many players, and know what they’ve contributed and how they’ve paved the way. I’m really grateful to be able to give back to those that created this for us. It’s quite a special moment.”
That moment got to be played out in front of a reasonable crowd making their way in for the first grade game. However, there were plenty on hand who had come especially to see the first ever Warriors Women’s side in action.
“Having family and friends here, and playing for the Warriors is a whole new experience.” said Ms Avaiki.
“It’s something that can be a genuine pathway, and keeps our girls in the game.”