State finals aren't an option due to COVID-19, but the NRL and NSWRL are still planning to relaunch the Katrina Fanning Cup and crown zone champions for at least four NSW regions.
The progressive nine-a-side school competition, which has divisions for under 12, 14, 16 and 18-year-old girls, got underway for its third edition earlier this year but was halted by lockdowns.
The remaining teams have already won through up to three stages to reach the regional finals, which decide the zone champions. Usually, they would go on to a state final, but that isn't feasible this year.
While there are tentative dates in place for two zones in and around greater Sydney, it's hoped that teams from the Riverina (Wagga), Western (Parkes), Northern (Coffs Harbour) and Southern (Wollongong) areas will compete once face-to-face learning is back in schools.
If all goes ahead, it's expected that close to 2000 participants will attend regional final days in terms three and four of the school year.
NSW female participation coordinator Kate Parkinson said the zone champions will be treated as though they've won state finals.
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"They'll get the normal things that they would have got in the state finals day – so they'll have champions caps awarded to the winners, they'll get medals, they'll get trophies," Parkinson said.
"They'll get a bit of collateral on the day to take away from being that zone winner. Then next year, we look to go bigger and better with even more schools involved, to that next step that will culminate in crowning state champions."
The Katrina Fanning Cup provides a pathway for female match officials with Referee Development Officers across NSW to assemble an all-female team to officiate the finals.
Given the COVID-19 pandemic put paid to last year's Katrina Fanning Cup, Parkinson said the NRL and NSWRL are aiming to create a special buzz at as many regional final days as possible.
"In the Western region, we'll be looking to go to a bigger venue in Parkes, so the Game Development Officers will run their local days in both Bathurst and Dubbo and then they'll take the regional final to Parkes," Parkinson said.
"The Southern team will host their event in Wollongong, and the Northern NSW team in Coffs Harbour, giving the regional finals a real stadium atmosphere.
"Funding will be allocated into making the regional finals not just a school gala day, but a real event. We want to activate some precinct activities, engage with hair braiders, bands, inflatables, local community organisations to name a few, make the day the best experience for these girls.
"We were hoping to have some of the NSW Sky Blues or NRLW players attend the zone events, but if that isn’t feasible in the current climate, we're also looking at how we can activate a virtual experience.
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"It could be a Zoom call on the day to allow the participants to interact with their heroes and role models. With the NRLW being pushed back this year, it will coincide nicely with many of these regional events.
"Many of the girls playing in the Katrina Fanning Cup aspire to play for the Sky Blues or in the NRLW, so being able to interact with these players and hear about their journeys, only opens their eyes to the possibilities of achieving their dreams.”
Despite the obstacles, the women's competition – which is open to CHS, CIS and Catholic schools – has continued to grow.
After its inaugural year in 2018, a further 32 teams joined in 2019 and there is excitement about the scope for more development.
"The interest in rugby league amongst our girls at school has grown in correlation with the growth in women's rugby league," Kotara High School PDHPE teacher Karen Johnson said.
"The Katrina Fanning Cup has provided an integral opportunity for our girls to not only sample the sport, but to also compete with other girls and schools in our region, and ultimately, in the state.
"The competition has provided our girls with quality competition to both test and expand their current skill set."
The tournament is named after inaugural Jillaroo Katrina Fanning, a proud Wiradjuri woman and ex-NSW and Country NSW captain.
Regional final dates
26th August 2021
Riverina Finals Day – Wagga
Teams coming in from Group 9 and 20
Approx Number: 200
7th September 2021
Western Regional Finals Day – Parkes
Teams coming in from both Group 10 and 11 (Castlereagh potentially)
Approx Number: 120
8th October 2021
Northern NSW Zone Finals – CEX Stadium
Teams coming in from Group 2, 3, 1, 18, 4 and 19
Approx Number: 300
3rd November 2021
Southern Corridor Zone Finals – Collegians Wollongong
Teams coming in from Group 7, Illawarra, St George and Cronulla
Approx Number: 380
Northern Corridor Zone Finals – Wyong TBC
Teams coming from Newcastle, Maitland, Group 21, Central Coast, Manly and North Sydney
Approx Number: 270
Sydney Central/Western Sydney Zone Finals – Whalan Reserve or St Marys TBC
Teams from Macarthur, Group 6, Canterbury, Parra and Penrith (no teams entered from Eastern Suburbs, Balmain or Souths this year)
Approx Numbers: 500