Doubling the number teams in just two years: NRLW expanding too quickly as talent pool drains


Last week, the NRL announced that the NRLW would be expanding further in 2025, with the Canterbury Bulldogs entering the competition for the first time and the New Zealand Warriors returning after a hiatus which started in 2021 due to the travel impacts of the pandemic.

This will make the NRLW a 12-team competition in 2025. Incredibly the size of the competition has doubled since 2022 when there were just six teams.

On the face of it, this is great news. I’m pleased to see the NRL committed to expansion of opportunities for women to play rugby league and the two clubs who have received licenses are extremely deserving.

It was devastating but understandable when the Warriors needed to withdraw due to the pandemic and you only need to look at players like Mele Hufanga to understand how much talent exists across the ditch. A team in New Zealand will help nurture that talent and mean that women will not have to relocate to Australia to chase their rugby league dream.

As for the Bulldogs, they have been committed to their women’s pathway with success in the Tarsha Gale competition and Harvey Norman Women’s Premiership in recent years.

But part of me is concerned that the competition is growing too quickly and that there may not be enough talent to sustain the quality of competition which we have seen in recent years.

In the 2023 edition of the NRLW, challenges started to emerge. Injury and suspension meant teams were forced to bring in less experienced players and in a competition where the difference between your top ranked player and your 30th player is much wider than in the NRL, it showed.

The Parramatta Eels finished at the bottom of the ladder. They struggled without Rachael Pearson for the first three weeks, were without Elsie Albert for all but 29 minutes of the season and Kennedy Cherrington was suspended for almost half the season. The Eels did not have the depth to cover the loss of their marquee players. I doubt any team would.

The Wests Tigers were in a similar position with injuries to Kezie Apps, Sarah Togatuki and Botille Vette-Welsh impacting their season.

Even a team boasting talent in almost every position, the Sydney Roosters, signed their strength and conditioning coach Millicent Scutt midway through the season.

There were also bigger scorelines with the Cronulla Sharks being the first team to put 50 points on an opposition (sadly it was against the Eels). Teams scoring over 40 points was not uncommon either.

Knights players celebrate with the NRLW Premiership Trophy. (Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

The other question I have is where will these two new teams get their players from?

New Zealand has the benefit of having a whole country to draw from, but the Bulldogs may not be as lucky.

The historic Collective Bargaining Agreement which was entered into between the NRL and the RLPA last year, means that 60 per cent of players entered into multi-year deals. This is great news for the players and gives them added financial security, but also needs to be taken into consideration for any expansion conversations. Players that are on two-year deals will be free agents by the end of this season, but for some of the marquee players locked into contracts longer than two years, they will be unavailable.

The Bulldogs have had players like Kennedy Cherrington and Holli Wheeler play for their Harvey Norman Women’s Premiership team in the past, but these players may not be free agents by the time the Bulldogs start to put their roster together.

This isn’t necessarily a problem but we may need to become more comfortable with some teams featuring far more emerging talent than others.

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It’s also worth considering where we are expanding into.

It is common opinion that there are too many Sydney teams in the men’s premiership. If that’s the case, then is the NRLW an opportunity to buck that trend and potentially mean that not every NRL team has an NRLW aligned team in the same area.

I know the North Sydney Bears are desperate to come back into the NRL. In the past, the Bears were also huge supporters of women’s rugby league. It is only in recent years that their Harvey Norman Women’s Premiership team has started to struggle, because players are more interested in going to a club that has a full pathway and that could give them an NRLW opportunity. Could the Bears be an option for NRLW expansion?

I don’t want to see the NRLW blindly follow the NRL without thinking about it first.

Don’t get me wrong, I am always excited for the expansion of a women’s competition, but we need to make sure the conditions are in place for our players to succeed. This also extends to pay, playing conditions and facilities.

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