Dean Widders says women’s rugby league could surpass W-League, WBBL in Aussie mainstream
Pamela Whaley (FOX Sports) - The Daily Telegraph
RUGBY league traditionalists often say the game has lost its heart.
They will have you believe it’s all about professionalism and technique and sports science these days — does anyone even love the game they play anymore?
Indigenous women’s coach Dean Widders is not one of those people.
“(The women’s game has) all the good things about rugby league at the moment,” he tells foxsports.com.au.
“They throw the ball around, take risks and try to put on big hits.
“It’s part of the game that was in the men’s even 10 years ago but it’s still there in the women’s game.
“They’re some of the things that traditional rugby league followers love about the game — the toughness and the skills.
“It’s all heart, it’s not technique and training, it’s passion.”
The success of the inaugural Women’s Big Bash League trumped ratings of men’s A League games over the summer and Widders believes rugby league has an even better product ready to sell to traditional audiences if the NRL introduced a competition.
He sees first hand how rugby league has inspired rising stars like 20-year-old Jillaroo Latoya Billy, who catches three planes and a boat from her island home of Moa in the Torres Strait just to get some game time.
Billy took a small plane from Moa to Horn Island, from there to Cairns and then on to Brisbane to be a part of the Indigenous All Stars camp this week.
He says Billy’s level of commitment is not unique in the women’s game, but it’s what rugby league fans want to see from their players.
“We’ll see some really amazing women’s rugby league players in the next three or four years and I think the more we can expose them, the bigger the games we can give them and the more people we can get interested in them, we’ll have the product that’s ready,” he says.
“I think it will be better than the women’s rugby sevens and soccer.
“You have a look at some of the Jillaroos ... they’re first class athletes. They are amazing.
“They’re just inspired from the All Stars concept, which was the biggest game of women’s rugby league for a long time.
“Now they’ve got the Anzac Test that they get to play in and the Nines has been added, it’s inspired a whole new generation of 17 and 18 years olds who are rugby league crazy, who live in New South Wales and Queensland and the Northern Territory and want to play rugby league because they love it.”
The impact the game of rugby league has had on someone like Billy cannot be oversold. It has changed her life.
She was a star in her village, with natural speed and agility, but even as a teenager she knew that if she was ever going to get an opportunity to play rugby league she was going to have to chase it for herself.
She saved money she earned while working at a supermarket, where she still works, and paid her own way to Brisbane to play in the Murri Carnival in 2014, after finding the Brisbane Natives team on Facebook and asking for a run.
They obliged, but didn’t expect much from her and gave her a tentative spot from the bench.
It was her first serious game of rugby league and she blitzed it. Six months later the young winger/fullback was selected for the Jillaroos.
“I just wanted to play in a different competition,” Billy says.
“Not much of us get recognised up there, not many scouts ever come up there so you have to travel.
“I feel like there’s a lot of talent up there, you have to come down here to get recognised.
“Being in these camps are very good, I go home and teach other girls and other boys the things that I learn.”
The Jillaroos and Ferns played a three-Test series at the Auckland Nines over the weekend, with many players backing up for the Indigenous and Women’s All Stars clash at Suncorp Stadium on Saturday.
Billy’s family will fly to Brisbane on Friday to watch her play for the Indigenous All Stars, while the rest of the island will live stream the game over a computer.
If Widders is right, Moa Island will be tuning in weekly as part of a record-breaking audience for women’s sport within the next five years.