Ladies who League: A game worth celebrating
If there's one thing the NRL is really good at, it's putting on a celebration.
Over the weekend I went to two live games of footy – the first between the Parramatta Eels and Penrith Panthers and the second between the Canterbury Bulldogs and the Wests Tigers.
Prior to both these games an Anzac ceremony was held and during each ceremony you could have heard a pin drop at ANZ Stadium. The crowd stood together solemnly, in solidarity and as a mark of respect for the many men and women who have, and continue, to serve our country so that we can be afforded the freedoms that so many of us take for granted each day.
There's something very special about thousands of people standing in absolute silence, particularly considering what a noisy world we live in.
The Anzac Day crowd at the game between the Sydney Roosters and St George Illawarra Dragons was also a sight to behold. A record crowd of 40,864 packed into Allianz Stadium to take part in the day and they were treated to a competitive, highly entertaining game of football which ended with Mitchell Pearce leading the tri-colours to victory with a field goal in extra-time.
The clash between the Roosters and the Dragons has become a feature on the rugby league calendar, just like finals football, and an occasion as important as Anzac Day deserves nothing less.
Following the conclusion of Round 9 this weekend, we have another opportunity to celebrate rugby league with a double-header in Canberra next Friday night.
The first game is between the Australian Jillaroos and the Kiwi Ferns and the second is between the Australian Kangaroos and the New Zealand Kiwis.
Yesterday, Mal Meninga announced his 20-man squad to take on the Kiwis next Friday night.
It's interesting that over the past couple of weeks I've fielded all sorts of questions about State of Origin and who Laurie Daley should pick in his NSW Blues squad to take on the Queensland Maroons. There are questions about who should be Blues halfback, whether Paul Vaughan should make his Origin debut and who Laurie Daley should pick as his starting hooker.
I've had plenty of questions about the Blues line-up, but strangely no one has asked me who should be picked for the Kangaroos.
It's no secret that as rugby league fans we love our State of Origin. I had the opportunity to go to Suncorp Stadium for Game II last year and despite hearing rumours about how much Queenslanders love State of Origin, I didn't realise quite how much until I went to Queensland. So extensive is the celebration and the lead-up to the game, that I think it would almost be worth petitioning the Queensland Premier to declare a public holiday.
My hope is that one day we will be in a position where there is similar debate, interest and fanfare in international rugby league, particularly considering how strong Australia is on the international stage and the capacity that we have to help grow the game in other parts of the world like Lebanon and amongst our Polynesian neighbours like Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Tonga and Samoa.
To be fair, the reason that there hasn't been more debate about the Kangaroos side could be because Mal made his intention very clear early on that he would pick an almost identical squad to that which played and won the Four Nations late last year. Considering the very short lead-in to this Test and the lack of time the team will have together to train, it makes sense to pick a squad that is already familiar with each other and has a proven success rate.
What's helpful to remember though is that 2017 is a World Cup year.
Beginning in October this year, a number of countries including England, Fiji, Scotland, France and Lebanon will compete for the Rugby League World Cup in Australia, New Zealand and PNG.
This year's tournament is even more significant because it is the first time that the men and women's competitions will be played alongside each other.
So if you think that some players were unfairly overlooked for selection on Friday night (names I've heard thrown around include Wade Graham, Will Chambers, Jarrod Croker, Andrew Fifita, James Tedesco and Tom Trbojevic), they may well get their opportunity towards the end of the year.
If you aren't based in Canberra, that doesn't mean you can't get involved in the Test match celebrations in Rep Round.
Last year I attended the Pacific Tests for the first time and was absolutely enthralled by how passionate the crowd was about the fixtures between Papua New Guinea Kumuls and Fiji Bati followed by Mate Ma'a Tonga and Toa Samoa. The crowd was full of song, dance, cheer and plenty of traditional dress was on show.
Considering over 40 per cent of the current NRL playing group are of Pacific Island descent, it's a great opportunity for these players to celebrate and share their cultural heritage with the NRL fan base.
This year, fans will be treated to a triple header at Campbelltown Sports Stadium. The first game will see the PNG Kumuls take on the Cook Islands. Then, Fiji Bati and Tonga will play before a first for the fixture when England play Toa Samoa.
I haven't even mentioned the game I am most excited about.
Over the next few days, I look forward to the announcement of the Jillaroos team to take on the Kiwi Ferns by Jillaroos coach Brad Donald.
Brad announced his 25-woman squad on Wednesday and I was pleased to see Steph Hancock and Ruan Sims both return from injury. Keep your eye out for Nakia Davis-Welsh who also debuts as part of the squad.
The big disappointment is of course that Kezie Apps will not take the field after breaking her leg during the Auckland Nines. The good news is that Kezie's Instagram and Twitter accounts have shared plenty of footage of her going through rehab and now that she's without moon boot, I'm hoping that she is well on her way to being fully fit for the World Cup later in the year.
Rugby league is a game worth celebrating, so I look forward to seeing plenty of you out and about next weekend.