“I didn’t think they’d catch on too quick, but they are fast learners, who don’t whinge. Best of all they have a passion to beat Queensland.” No, that’s not Laurie Daley’s thoughts ahead of his State of Origin baptism of fire – it’s fellow first-time Blues coach Daniel Lacey – the man in charge of steering the New South Wales women to their first ever series win over an unrelenting Queensland, starting in Brisbane on Sunday.
You think Daley has a tough assignment in breaking the Maroons, who have tunnel vision in their pursuit of an eighth straight Origin series victory? Well, spare a thought for Daniel. He cut his coaching teeth in the Illawarra under no better mentor than Wayne Bennett. Imitating the supercoach, Lacey was on the coaching staff for the Dragons’ under-20s and SG Ball sides. Mark ‘Piggy’ Riddell couldn’t commit again for 2013, so Lacey stepped in to coach the Blues’ Ladies – with just six weeks’ preparation.
“I haven’t changed anything just because they’re girls” Lacey said. “In fact, they are more versatile and less selfish players than the blokes”. Unlike some headline-grabbing individuals on fat contracts in the NRL, those involved in women’s rugby league know attitude is not a problem in their ranks. The girls will drive for hours just to take part in a training session or open trial, grateful to receive just a training shirt for their efforts.
So this Sunday, Lacey has a massive task of finding a way around an unbeaten, powerhouse Queensland side who eclipse the Maroon men by aiming for their fifteenth straight series win!
But it’s not just a battle across the border. Australian Selectors will be making their final pick for the Jillaroos side to take to the World Cup in England. Sixteen girls have already ‘saved the date’ for the Great Britain Tour, but eight more will receive their green-and-gold call-up this week. Australia hosted the last Women’s World Cup in 2008, when New Zealand pulled off a three-peat to etch their name onto the International silverware.
My only question is: why is the biggest occasion in Australian women’s rugby league unfolding on a suburban ground in Brisbane’s West End, when the Broncos and Titans are playing in front of a national audience just an hour away on the Gold Coast? In the past, the girls have played a curtain-raiser at Suncorp before State of Origin, but last year it was staged at Penrith and this year at Davies Park.
The AFL has seen the light on women’s matches. It’s the fastest-growing area of participation and they know it’s a big part of the future of their game. By 2020, the AFL wants to nationally broadcast women’s matches and evolve the league to recognise both male and female stars of the game.
Meanwhile rugby union is poaching rugby league halfbacks, five-eighths, fullbacks and wingers with cash contracts and the chance to become an Olympian. Rugby Sevens is a seriously attractive brand of football for young girls looking to play for Australia.
If the other codes are changing the fact that roughly 50 per cent of their supporters would love to play for their club but would never be allowed based on their gender... surely the NRL can too? How long then before a national women’s competition features on game day, alongside the Under-20s and NRL? I know that’s an uncomfortable thought for many armchair diehards, but from my experience even hardened league fans are left impressed after watching a women’s match. Yes, they actually tackle! Yes, they can kick a 40/20! And believe me, they hit hard!
But back to Daniel Lacey and his ‘mission impossible’ on Sunday. His Blues women go into camp on the Gold Coast with just a few days to find a flaw in Queensland, who haven’t been beaten since the inception of the Interstate Challenge in 1999. Some of Lacey’s playmakers were just infants when the New South Wales ladies last beat the Maroons!
These ‘Baby Blues’ will have to show they’ve matured if they’re to break that long losing streak. Meanwhile the ARL C will need to do likewise, or rugby league is set to lose some wonderful female athletes to other codes.