Recruitment of Warrior women in full swing
A dream that for two decades has been utterly out of reach is about to become a reality for dozens of Kiwi rugby league players. Steve Deane reports.
She captained her country to three World Cup triumphs, but there was one dream that would never become a reality for rugby league star Luisa Avaiki: she would never play in the NRL; never be a Warrior.
Even when Avaiki last held the World Cup aloft, in 2008, such thoughts would have been fanciful for a female.
A decade on, times have changed. Buttressed by impressive TV ratings and increasing spectator approval, women’s professional sporting competitions are carving out their own niche in the Southern Hemisphere.
The women’s Big Bash League has helped the female game break through a flannel ceiling; women’s rugby is pressing on from semi into something more akin to full professionalism; and now, on the back of a successful toe dip on the big stage at the NRL Nines, league is following suit.
Fittingly, over the next fortnight, as head coach of the club’s inaugural women’s team, Avaiki will play a key role in anointing the first wave of female Warriors.
“It is so exciting,” Avaiki said. “I’m excited about what it is does for our game. It allows these athletes to really have a pathway.”
For 22 aspiring women, the journey to becoming an NRL player will begin very shortly with a shoulder tap from Avaiki.
After months of negotiations between the NRL and the players’ union (RLPA), the recruiting process for the flagship four-team NRL women’s competition is finally underway.
The NRL has identified 60 ‘marquee’ players as the likely stars of the competition – 40 from Australia and 20 from New Zealand. They will make up the bulk of the Warriors, Dragons, Broncos and Roosters clubs that will contend a tournament running concurrently with the NRL finals.
The four clubs will each meet other in pool play, with the top two contesting the grand final.
With the marquee player window now open, clubs have three weeks to select up to 15 players from the initial player list. There are no restrictions on nationality, meaning Avaiki could potentially look to Australia for talent. And, more likely perhaps, the Australian clubs can recruit out of New Zealand.
There are already reports of that happening, with Kiwi Ferns back rower Teuila Fotu-Moala – the individual star of the last World Cup - already strongly linked to the Broncos.
Players can earn up to $A9000 for the four-week tournament, which Lavaiki describes primarily as compensation for time off work and money to cover expenses.
The player contracts have restrictions on when players can be called upon, reflecting that many will have to fit their commitments around full-time work and motherhood.
In addition, 40 players on 12-month NRL marquee contracts can earn up to $A30,000, as well as receiving access to a high-performance training programme and health insurance.
Avaiki’s attention this weekend will be firmly on Cornwall Park, where the six-team national women’s championships are being held. Three teams from Auckland (Counties Manukau, Akarana and Vulcans) will take on Canterbury, Wellington and Waicoa Bay.
Many of those players will be in contention for the places in the Warriors squad not filled by the initial intake of marquee players.
The introduction of the NRL competition has already been felt at junior level. Last year Auckland Rugby League launched girls’ U15 and U17 grades. This year that has expanded to include an U13 grade.
“What it has done is really sparked an interest for our young girls coming through," Avaiki says. “Those girls can now see that actually there is a future and a pathway for them to stay in the game and advance to the highest level.”
While Avaiki may have missed the chance to be a Warrior as a player, she will make history as the club’s first women’s team coach – and woman coach.
With the Broncos, Roosters and Dragons all naming male coaches, Avaiki also becomes the first – and for now only – female coach in the NRL.
“In a game like rugby league, people are traditionally going to look for a male coach,” she says. “But it is not just that. It is women’s attitudes around coaching – changing that mentality that because there are not many opportunities they don’t actually pursue it.
“I started coaching boys at my club [Richmond Rovers] years ago. It didn’t matter to me if it was boys or girls. But that started from an opportunity the club gave me. They didn’t look at it as a female coaching a men’s team. They just said: ‘You are a coach’.
“I think once people give those opportunities to women, they might have the confidence to step into those roles without doubting their ability.”
The 22-player squads for the competition will be confirmed at the end of July.