Warriors kick off a whole new era in women’s league
Luisa Avaiki may be ruing the missed opportunity.
But you’d like to think the 2518 fans in Mt Smart’s East Stand who came out to watch history unfold on a sunny Sunday afternoon can’t have left feeling quite as crestfallen as Avaiki and her Warriors.
Yes, the Warriors women – who'd started the NRLW season so positively a week before - were beaten fair and square in their first-ever home game on Sunday afternoon. The visiting St George Illawarra Dragons were simply relentless on attack in the second half, patiently waiting to find chinks in the Warriors’ armour out wide; fighting back from a 6-0 deficit at halftime, to win 26-6.
Yes, the Warriors missed out on a chance to advance straight into the NRLW grand final.
And yes, as Warriors coach Avaiki lamented, it was a missed opportunity for those women to showcase “what they could do as a team and perform really well as a team in front of our families.
“The [players] will feel very hurt going away knowing they had their parents and their kids in the stands, and they know they could have been better than that.”
But most of those watching would, you hope, have still appreciated the magnitude of the moment. That this was bigger than just a one-off result, or another Warriors defeat on a Sunday afternoon.
It was the first time in the two seasons of the competition that the women had a stand-alone game, where they weren’t piggy-backing on a men’s NRL clash.
“This is huge. It’s history in the making,” said Tiffany Slater, the NRL’s general manager of the women’s elite programme, who flew from Melbourne to be part of the moment.
“The first stand-alone NRLW game ever - and the first opportunity for the Warriors, who travelled every week last year, to have their own families and friends and supporters of rugby league come out and celebrate just the women,” she says.
“While the double-headers are great as we’re building up the NRLW, today is so important in starting a new era of the NRLW and giving the women an opportunity to stand on their own two feet.”
While the crowd was quite some way shy of the 10,000 to 18,000 the Warriors men drew to their encounters at Mt Smart this season, the NRL's head honchos seemed more than happy with the turnout.
“I think it’s excellent,” said Jason King, the former Manly Sea Eagles captain, now head of elite competitions for the NRL. “It was a really strong build-up, a great spectacle and a good atmosphere around the game as well.”
But it's still early days in the NRLW, and expanding the four-team competition could be a few years off. Slater says the "very strong voice" from the current players is that they want to be recognised for quality football, and that's where the initial focus on growing the game lies.
Motu Tony had his own good reasons for hoping the day would be a success.
A Warrior for three seasons, Tony is now the head of high performance at the club (he handed the women their playing shirts before the Warriors throttled the Roosters last week).
But he also has a 12-year-old daughter, who’s started playing league this year.
She wasn’t influenced by her dad – “I was hoping she would be the first Samoan gymnast at an Olympics” – but started playing because her friends were.
“And she loves the game. She got injured quite early on, but her passion for the game didn’t diminish. She kept pushing me to take her back,” Tony says. “You’ve got young women watching these Warriors women now, and they’re our game's future.”
The number of women and young girls playing in New Zealand has increased by 20 percent since the NRLW began last year, bucking the trend in league, Tony says.
The Auckland competition has added an under-12 girls grade. Senior women’s competitions have sprouted up in the Bay of Plenty and Waikato.
A team of young girls from Glenbervie School in Northland came to play in a curtain-raiser on Sunday.
“They don’t have rugby league up there, but today was an opportunity for those girls to come down and play here at Mt Smart,” Avaiki says. They’d even named their teams after Warriors captain Georgia Hale and team-mate Krystal Rota.
“Anyone who arrived here early would have seen the 12-year-olds out there playing, then the 14-year-olds and the 18-year-olds. Our girls came out to watch them, and they were buzzing about it.
“We were able to have all-female games for our families and all our clubs with their little kids… I woke up this morning the sun was shining and I thought, ‘what an awesome day for footie’.
“So in that sense it was still a good day, and still successful for our game.”
Avaiki doesn’t think her side suffered from being too caught up in the moment, or that they put too much pressure on themselves to perform in front of their greatest fans.
But she knows that they let themselves down controlling the ruck, and couldn’t bounce back when the Dragons surged in the second half. They had control, at least on the scoreboard, at halftime, after second-rower Onjeurlina Leiataua drove through for the Warriors’ only try in the first 15 minutes, converted by Apii Nicholls.
“We spent a lot of time on [defence] in that second half. We just weren’t resilient enough to do that through the whole second half,” Avaiki says, after the Dragons piled on five tries to make certain of their first victory of the season.
The Warriors have to be applauded for an act of sportsmanship off the field (although it may have come back to haunt them).
They allowed Kiwi Ferns prop Maitua Feterika to play for the Dragons, even though her name wasn’t on the original team list the club had entered.
In what Dragon’s coach Daniel Lacey described as “a human error”, the Dragons accidentally left another Kiwi Fern, Teuila Fotu-Moala, on the player list of 17, even though she was suspended for a dangerous tackle in the first round.
Lacey didn’t tell the Dragons players in the dressing room before the game about the drama unfolding outside in the hour before the match, and it was only through the grace of the Warriors that Feterika was allowed to play.
Unfortunately Feterika didn’t return the same compassion to the home team. She scored a crucial try in the second half, leaping onto a grubber kick that deflected off the goalpost, and consistently set up play for the Dragons.
"Whether or not we knew that Maitua was going to make such a huge impact in the middle for them, it was just that opportunity to be able to let that player play,” Avaiki said afterwards.
She hopes that should the Warriors find themselves in the same boat one day, the favour will be returned.
The Warriors now need to beat defending champions the Brisbane Broncos next weekend, who haven’t lost a game yet, to show their growing band of fans – 2518 and counting – that they can make more history, in the grand final for the first time.