Boom growth of women's game makes for exciting World Cup

In case you missed the overwhelming pre-tournament vibes coming out of 'Camp Australia' on the Gold Coast, here's the headline: "The Jillaroos are excited."

Their opening pool match at the sixth Women's Rugby League World Cup will be the first time Australia's national women's team has played a Test natch since October 2019. The reason? I'm sure you can guess (hint: it begins with C and was/is a global pandemic).

Now the 24 women deemed Australia's best available rugby league players are in the UK, mere days away from a third straight world cup defense which begins against the Cook Islands at York's LNER community stadium on November 3. Their other group stage clashes, against France and the Kiwi Ferns, will happen at the same venue.

Despite some high-profile withdrawals before the pre-departure camp at Grifith University on the Gold Coast, the Jillaroos will enter the tournament as scorching favourites. This rampant favoritism is attributable both to status as winners of the past two tournaments, and the rapid growth and professionalism of the domestic game. The prep week was as much a peak performance summit as a footy camp; players were constantly assessed and analysed by sports scientists while completing elite training programs in elite facilities. The overall objectives- in basic tournament terms- peak fitness and peak focus. The Jillaroos have zero intention of losing this world cup.

Thirteen debutants have earned national stripes on the back of stirring NRLW form, forcing coach Brad Donald and his fellow selectors to deny starts to a string of incumbents.

"I have said this a number of times about the work that people are putting into the pathways, the state leagues, the NRL, the grassroots clubs,' Brad Donald told reporters attending the camp. 'Because as the top of the game has exploded, so has the bottom."

"It was difficult to get 40 names on a list... so to then narrow it down to 24 was extremely difficult."

To borrow one of rugby league's foremost squad-describing cliches, the Jillaroos squad is 'a strong mix of youth and experience.'

Cliche or not, an apt description for this squad. Debutants such as 21-year-old Knights backrower Caitlan Johnston lit it up for the Blues in the 2022 State of Origin; now she's sharing the stage with Maroons stalwart Ali Brigginshaw, a genuine modern day great. Brigginshaw is the co-captain and longest serving player in the squad, with 17 Tests behind her. She cast a broken figure when the Eels bundled the Broncos out of the NRLW a month ago. Expect her to now take that hurt out on the rest of the world. Expect the same from Emma Tonegato, the Dragons dual international (and Rio 2016 Olympic gold medallist), who got her call up when Knights fullback Tamika Upton withdrew with injury.

Brigginshaw, Tonegato and Roosters fullback Sam Bremner were all present for Australia's 2013 World Cup win. Five players remain from the 2017 edition. Youth outweighs experience, but you wouldn't swap the experience for anything.

Bremner, Dally M fullback of the year, earns a co-captaincy alongside Brigginshaw after a previous captaincy debut in 2018 was thwarted by injury. Her international career has been in carbon freeze since 2016.

Meantime Dragons favourite Kezie Apps resumes an international career which began in 2014. Rooster Isabelle Kelly and Parramatta's Saimama Taufa return as old hands, despite being just 26 and 28 respectively. Taufa in particular would be the subject of her rivals nightmares after a devastating season for the Eels: 163 run metres and 35 tackles a game, plus a grand final berth.

Taking a look at the youthful end of the roster; there'll be a long overdue debut for Broncos pivot Tarryn Aiken, and an introduction to the big stage for dynamic Roosters lock Keilee Joseph. Players like Shaylee Bent will be living out dreams on multiple fronts, having almost ignored the phone call from Brad Donald after the withdrawal of Newcastle superstar Millie Boyle.

"I wasn't going to answer it at first because I was a bit nervous and thought he was just calling to tell me why I didn't make the team,' she explains.

"But then he explained one of the girls had dropped out and I was next in line and asked if I was available to come to England. So I said of course I was.. I've never really been overseas."

Eight nations will fight out the tournament, including newcomers Brazil. There was a time New Zealand were the undisputed Queens of the female game; holding the mantle for 13 years before Australia ended their reign in 2013. Trans Tasman rivalry will be reignited in the third group stage match on November 11, and most likely again in the knockout stages. The Jillaroos will be relishing multiple confrontations with the power and passion of the Kiwi Ferns, and the NRLW's incumbent Dally M medallist Raecene McGregor.

Criticism of the men's tournament has focused on the lopsided scorelines, as top tier nations ruthlessly dismantle their far less seasoned opponents. Average winning margins of 50+ points make for ugly reading, but it's fair to say some critics are just missing the mark on the true purpose of a Rugby League World Cup.

Given the quality on display in the rapidly expanding NRLW over the past few seasons, a similar scenario will play out in the women's World Cup, but there'll be some excellent moments along the way.

Gold Coast Titans duo Kimiora Breayley-Nati and April Ngatupuna will turn out for the Cook Islands Moana and bring some game shifting potential with them; but the minnow nation will struggle to make a dent in the Jillaroos' opening match. They have beaten England in the past though, so could well cause some damage in the group stages.

France have 11 players from Catalans Dragons in the women's super league. Some familiarity on the field might just be enough to earn them a maiden victory in a World Cup match. It won't be against Australia though.

The third game matchup with New Zealand will be a Test match in every possible sense. McGregor was near unstoppable at halfback for the Roosters in NRLW 2022, conjuring 10 try assists in five games. Prop Amber Hall steamrolls for fun with a Broncos jersey on, and dials it up a notch in the Kiwi Ferns kit. Apii Nicholls-Pualau is equally devastating at the back for the Titans. Talent everywhere, but unlikely to match up right across the park with the Jillaroos.

Outside the pool, threats are thin on the ground. Tara Stanley is the goalkicking fullback who will carry England's hopes. Those hopes have never carried them further than the semi finals in a World Cup. Stanley is the reigning woman of steel after leading York to an unlikely grand final in the Super League, but she is not expected to deliver overall success for the hosts. Pencil them in for a big win in the tournament opener against Brazil's Amazonas, and a final four berth.

A special mention for the over-achieving Canadian Ravens here as well. Laura Mariu is a 41-year-old Kiwi Ferns icon with five World Cups behind her, who'll spearhead Canada's hopes after gaining eligibility through her mother. The Ravens made their tournament debut in 2017, overcoming Papua New Guinea to book a fairytale semi-final berth. A rematch beckons in the group stage of this event, with the PNG Orchids set to rally behind two excellent sources; one being national pride, the other, powerhouse Dragons prop Elise Albert. That matchup could provide the second most enticing of the group stages, behind the Jillaroos vs Kiwi Ferns epic.

It's difficult to see a pound-for-pound title fight for the Jillaroos coming from any nation that isn't New Zealand. Even then, it will take a small miracle for Australia not to retain the trophy at Old Trafford on November 19. There is merit to any concern around the strength of the international game, and the risk of blowout scores is real.

All of that in mind, consider this: does it even matter?

Test footy has returned after a painful hiatus. The success of the NRLW has given the World Cup a platform and a player pool it's never had before. Australia is introducing 13 debutants to the international arena. The tournament's biggest threat plays for our biggest rival. And Latin America is making its first foray into international women's rugby league.

Time to get excited.