NRL Nines next step for women's game
They promise to become rugby league trailblazers but before the Cronulla Sharks women's nines team can take their first step they need one thing: someone to play against.
On June 30 the Sharks announced the formation of a women's nines team and the intention to play a match prior to an NRL fixture before the end of the season, an aim Jillaroos captain and NRL ambassador Ruan Sims says remains firmly in place.
Saturday's clash with the Raiders is the Sharks' second-last home game of the regular season with their only other fixture at Southern Cross Group Stadium against the Roosters in Round 25.
While a game won't happen this weekend as we celebrate Harvey Norman Women in League Round, Sims is hopeful that their star-studded Sharks team will have someone to play against in Round 25, with the Rabbitohs, Dragons and Eels believed to be the most likely NRL clubs to be able to form a women's nines team in the short term.
On the back of the Jillaroos' World Cup win in 2013, the three-game series against the Kiwi Ferns at the inaugural Auckland Nines in 2014 brought the women's game live into the lounge rooms of hundreds of thousands of people and Sims sees an NRL women's nines competition as the next step in the game's evolution.
"We're hoping to encourage other NRL clubs to look at the model that we have at the Sharks and take that on board and work off the back of that," said Sims, who is a member of the Sharks team that also boasts fellow Jillaroos Sam Bremner, Allana Ferguson, Maddie Studdon and Corban McGregor.
"I know that the New South Wales Rugby League is committed to it and the NRL is committed to it so it's just getting club-land to commit to it as well.
"It will happen this year. We haven't confirmed the exact date yet but it is definitely going to be this year and it will be played prior to an NRL match.
"The Sharks are pioneering this and I really hope that other clubs look at it and want to take it on board because I think it will add value to their club as well."
The Cronulla region has seen an 800 per cent increase in female participation in 2016 and Sims said providing a pathway from juniors through to senior football and then representative selection was crucial in attracting girls to the game at a young age.
The depth is not currently in the women's game to launch a full-scale national competition that would run parallel with the NRL, but it would seem a natural progression if a round robin nines competition could be run successfully in the coming years.
"Sometimes you look at the Jillaroos or the Kangaroos and you think that it would be great to play for Australia but how do you get there? If you've got an NRL club that you can play for, like the men, you can go from NRL to Origin and then the Jillaroos," said Sims, who recently led NSW to their first ever win over Queensland in the women's Interstate Challenge.
"I want the exact same progression for the women, that's what I would like to see and what I envisage. That's why we're getting a lot more young girls involved because they can see that pathway now and the growth is huge.
"It will have to be one-off games until we can get a few more NRL clubs on board but once we do I definitely see a round robin competition happening and ultimately I'd love to see possibly a pre-season Nines tournament for the girls as part of the NRL clubs and then hopefully in a few years' time it builds into a 13-a-side competition.
"There is so much scope to do whatever we want to do. We can literally write our own future.
"We can decide what we want to do as long as we can show that it's a good product and continually growing."
Members of the Sharks' NRL squad have been highly supportive of the club's move to introduce a women's team into the organisation with back-rower Wade Graham enthralled by the recent Interstate Challenge.
"I find it hard to watch, how hard they get into it," said Graham, himself one of the toughest competitors in the NRL.
"They certainly play a great style of footy. They really compete hard and they compete just as hard as the men.
"I was watching the Origin game the other week with my partner and even she wanted to get involved a little bit.
"The women's team is starting to grow and there's a really big Cronulla feel with a lot of those girls playing down there in the local comp.
"There's a Cronulla-Caringbah team in the women's comp and we have a lot of great women in our club. It's another great thing for the community that they do down in Cronulla really well."