Top rugby league players weigh up offshore opportunities

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Kiwi Ferns World Cup-winning captain Luisa Avaiki wants New Zealand’s top talent playing at home but she’s been forced to help a record number of players chase professional opportunities overseas.

Kiwi Ferns players will need to consider playing for Australia-based NRLW sides in 2021.
Photo: © Photosport Ltd 2018 www.photosport.nz

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Before the pandemic a small percentage of the Kiwi Ferns players plied their trade for Australian clubs in the women’s NRL (NRLW), that number was set to increase substantially this year.

The void left by the Warriors dropping out of the (NRLW) meant players seeking elite competition ahead of this year’s Rugby League World Cup needed to be willing to relocate.

Avaiki coached the Warriors in their first season in the NRLW in 2018 and was now in charge of developing the women’s game with New Zealand Rugby League as well as being a Kiwi Ferns assistant coach.

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The NZRL was “committed” to providing professional pathways and Avaiki said the governing body was working with the NRL to compile a list of players – predominantly from the wider Kiwi Ferns squad – to put in front of the six NRLW coaches.

“Obviously the other clubs and coaches won’t know who our girls are so it’s really important that we do work with the NRL to provide those names,” she said.

“Our girls are automatically connected to the Warriors because our families are from here and what the Warriors represent for their whanau and for our community clubs, so ideally that’s where they’d want to be.

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“We understand the [Warriors] decision around Covid and the difficulty around that is that our girls still want those opportunities and in fairness to them they should be able to still get them.”

The five New Zealand-based players who joined the Warriors makeshift team in Australia last year had opened the door for more players to make a similar move, Avaiki said.

“We had a very big group of our girls who missed out on NRLW last year because of Covid and because it just wasn’t viable due to their personal circumstances that they go. Even though last year the NRL were really confident to carry on that competition there was still a lot of uncertainty amongst the players but I think now that the girls have seen that it was safe they feel comfortable with the conditions that the clubs will be talking to them about.

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“This year we’ve had a bigger number of players who’ve indicated if they were offered a contract or had an offer of interest they’d definitely be in the position to relocate.”

New Zealand Warrior's womens coach Luisa Avaiki.

Luisa Avaiki coaching the Warriors’ women in 2019.
Photo: © Copyright Andrew Cornaga / www.photosport.nz Photosport Ltd 2019

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When the Warriors removed their team from this season’s NRLW, the club took the announcement as an opportunity to criticise the way that the women’s game was run in New Zealand.

Warriors chief executive Cameron George said “significant investment” was needed in pathways and development.

“As it stands, we are a long way behind what we see in Australia. They have a very strong structure built on competitions, representative fixtures and a huge commitment to development,” George said.

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For the future of the game Avaiki said NZRL and the Warriors needed to work together.

“I think in the best interests of our game it’s an important relationship between us and the Warriors because we see the NRLW as an elite pathway for our players, it’s another part of our pathway.”

Avaiki has been involved in rugby league for more than three decades dating back to her Kiwi Ferns debut in 1995.

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She was part of an era of international dominance – lifting the World Cup three times – in 2000, 2003 and 2008 – and she said game time was a big factor in the New Zealand team’s success.

Luisa Avaiki playing in the 2008 women's rugby league final at Suncorp Stadium

Luisa Avaiki playing in the 2008 women’s rugby league final at Suncorp Stadium
Photo: ©PHOTOSPORT www.photosport.co.nz

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“When I first started playing and for a very long time during my playing career we had big numbers in club, there were 36 teams in Auckland alone and even as that decreased it was still 26, 24 teams in Auckland so we got to play a lot of rugby league and it was very competitive.

“But we also had Pacific Cup, we had club nines challenge and there were some inter-regional games, so when it came to Tests against other countries we had played so much rugby league and we were very experienced.”

Club competitions had shrunk but were on the rebound according to Avaiki and NZRL was working to make sure that up and coming players had opportunities to refine their game domestically.

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The introduction of the women’s National Premiership last year leveled the playing field and took the game to regions of New Zealand outside of the powerhouse Auckland region.

“The zones have really bought into it because it’s another level of competition that’s a higher level from club and it’s another avenue of opportunity for their players to be looked at for the Kiwi Ferns.”

This year for the first time a national girls secondary school competition will run alongside the boys competition.

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“Off the back of NRLW, of more Tests for our Kiwi Ferns, the world cup coming, now seeing local community players playing in a [televised] Premiership competition, that’s really helped to build the momentum for more young girls and women wanting to be a part of the game.”

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