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Female Origin coaches a sign of rapidly expanding horizons

Anyone interested in joining me for a road trip to the Sunshine Coast in June?

Earlier this week it was confirmed that the Ampol State of Origin women’s clash would be played on the Sunshine Coast for the second year in a row.

Some NSW fans may be disappointed the June 25 game is remaining north for another year, it gives fans in Queensland and from other parts of the country who can take a holiday a chance to cheer on their Origin heroes given how heavily last year’s contest was affected by border closures.

The NSW women will no doubt be solely focused on bringing the trophy home after losing in 2020 for the first time since the fixture was rebranded to State of Origin.

But there’s plenty more to be excited about.

This year’s fixture will be the first time both teams will be coached by women.

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Earlier this year, NSW announced Kylie Hilder would become the first female coach of the women’s side since Karen Stuart in 2011. Shortly after, Tahnee Norris was named as Queensland coach, making her the first female coach of the women’s team under the official Origin banner.

Fingers crossed, Belinda Sharpe and Kasey Badger also get to take part in the game as referees, which would make it as close to a complete women’s affair since the fixture’s inception.

There’s no denying it’s an extremely exciting time for women’s rugby league as we can all look forward to an increasingly likely expanded NRL Women’s Premiership later this year after the discussions at last week's ARL Commission meeting.

Although the structure remains unconfirmed, the suggestion is the four-team competition will include an additional two sides with another two to enter the competition in 2022.

Women's State of Origin returns to the Sunshine Coast

More teams also means an expansion in the number of rounds, with the competition set to run over five weeks before the finals and a decider to coincide with the NRL grand final.

What’s been really positive about this growth talk is the energy amongst the entire rugby league fan base. Everyone seems to want more women’s footy.

This is great to see, but as we grow it's important to remember the importance of growing at a sustainable pace, given the athletes are not yet full-time professionals.

For example, many are pushing for a three-game women’s State of Origin series. I desperately want that too.

But we have to keep in mind that so many women playing rugby league juggle their footy commitments with work, study and family.

To go into Origin camp, women need to make arrangements to ensure the rest of their lives are sorted.

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This is different to the NRL players, when they are selected for representative honours - the time away from club duties is an accepted part of the process.

When we ask for more for our female athletes, we need to keep in mind their unique situation and the sacrifices they make to play the sport they love.

A similar sacrifice was made by the New Zealand Warriors NRLW team last year given the border restrictions.

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The COVID-19 pandemic meant the majority of their squad was based in Sydney and the women who came across from New Zealand to play had to do two lots of quarantine - one on arrival to Australia and one on return to New Zealand. This is a big ask for what was essentially, a four-week competition.

Given these challenges, it’s come as no surprise to me that there are suggestions the Warriors will not take part in the NRLW this year.

While this is certainly a shame, especially given the Kiwi talent such as Georgia Hale and Krystal Rota, hopefully we continue to see opportunities for New Zealand women to play rugby league and their re-entry into the competition becomes a priority.

When the time is right, given the challenges of the pandemic, I would also like to see more opportunity for the Australian Jillaroos to play against the Kiwi Ferns, particularly ahead of the World Cup later this year.

It’s been an exciting two weeks and it's only going to get better with Origin and then the NRLW pre-season not too far away.

It’s expected that an announcement about the new teams to enter the competition will occur in the next couple of weeks.

Who knows, it may not be too much longer before I have a men’s and women’s Parramatta Eels squad to cheer on.

The views in this article do not necessarily express the opinions of the NRL, ARL Commission, NRL clubs or state associations.