Rise of the Valkyries

BY DAN

The Canberra Raiders are growing.

Just like the decision made 42 years ago, rugby league has today announced the decision to expand into Canberra. This time it’s as part of the NRLW, as first reported by Katie Brown here. This is unquestionably great news for a host of reasons, not the least that there will be more rugby league to watch. They’ll form part of an expanded ten team competition, alongside new teams at the Sharks, the Tigers and Townsville.

The ACT region was always a likely choice for expansion, something that we’ve noted on a few occasions lately. Raiders head honcho Don Furner has noted that the financial position of the club, and therefore the new team, would be healthy, and that the facilities at Raiders HQ could easily support an extra team. The team also has ACT Government support, both symbolic and financial. And it’s not a stretch to think that Canberra has a rare mix of progressive sports fans keen to spend their disposable income to see the best of professional women’s sport.

As we’ve noted before, it was a pitch reminiscent when the Raiders were first admitted to the NSW Rugby League in the early 1980s. Back then the names were different (McIntyre has become Furner, Daly and Kelly has become Barr and Berry) but the key foundations were the same, including the desire and willingness of the league to have access to the talent of the Canberra region, including the South Coast and the Riverina.

It’s such a clear win for the league as well as Canberra. The Raiders get a team, and the league establishes itself as the major professional winter sport in the area. It allows them to put a flag down to try and attract the best athletes of the region (provided the pay keeps heading northwards – and Abdo’s flagging of a coming Enterprise Bargaining Agreement for female athletes with the RLPA should be a win there), before the AFLW can secure a foothold. And most important of all, it provides a professional pathway for the women of the region to pursue their sporting dreams. NRL CEO Andrew Abdo continually highlighted the importance of ‘geography’ and ‘pathways’ as the source of his confidence in the success of this expansion.

The only shame of it all is that it seems the Milk will be without the long presumed Raiders No 1 Millie Boyle, who has signed at Newcastle alongside her partner Adam Elliott. NRLW contracts are only one year deals at the moment, but given Elliott signed for three, and the rumours around Boyle’s pay at Newcastle, it’s increasingly unlikely she’ll be Canberra’s marquee player next year.

Just like their male counterparts, it will probably be hard for the Raiders to compete for big names, a challenge that Furner has already identified. With the addition of four teams in total, including two more Sydney teams, there’s simply a lot of competition for recruitment. Existing teams are already getting fat from the Broncos run-off. The Green Machine will have to look where others won’t, starting with their local region, a trait almost part of their DNA. It’s been reported that there’s a belief among NRL bigwigs that the talent exists in the Canberra area to support a competitive team. Time will tell if they need to (or if they can) go searching beyond that. Again, Abdo continually highlighted participation rates in the regions that won bids as critical in their success, and identified that he expected clubs to attract athletes from across Australian and the international region.

This battle for talent will make the job hard, and alongside the confusing decision to add more Sydney teams, presents a challenge for the league to overcome. The necessary development to foster the talent needed to match the region, and the number of teams should have been happening in the lead up to expansion, but given V’Landys cut the development budget as part of ‘saving the game’ during Covid, my guess is it hasn’t. It again puts the onus on Canberra to start developing talent that will contribute to the collective ‘wealth’ rather than just their own. It’s a problem to keep an eye on.

But for now let’s rejoice. More Raiders (or Valkyries? I’ve always thought that was a boss name), more pathways and equality for women and more footy. What’s not to love?

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