Super W set to take place at top table of Australian women’s sport | Jill Scanlon

After a successful debut series, this year hopes to translate new training levels to on-field quality

The 2019 Super W season kicks off this weekend amid great anticipation, given the success of the inaugural series 12 months ago. Rugby Australia has reported a 20% increase in female participation in the XVs form of the code, but it may still sit in the shadow of other women’s sport codes, considering the continuing growth and success the sector experienced overall in 2018.

But what will Super W offer a sport-loving public which has become increasingly enthralled with and consequently more supportive of women’s sport? Similar to AFLW, Super W has a short but impactful season scheduled across seven weeks with a slightly expanded competition from the first – with five regular rounds and two finals.

Building on what was considered to be a successful debut series, the development of talent and an increase in awareness has seen a positive outcome with evidence of increased participation at local club level across the states. That emerging talent is now looking to take the next step on the RA pathway.

Melbourne Rebels head coach Alana Thomas, the only returning coach from last season, believes the signs all point to women’s rugby being on course for development into the future. “New blood is coming in this year – that’s what we’ve found here [at the Rebels],” she says. “We’re getting a lot of young girls and they’re bringing in a really good attitude and energy to the group which is exciting.

“All the other states are feeling that effect as well, off the back of the inaugural year where girls probably sat back and watched and, when they saw the product that came out and the experience and the opportunities, then they put their hands up across the course of the club season.”

For 2019, the focus will be to apply the high-performance mantle which the teams have implemented off the back of the opening season and into which the new crop of talent has come with an expectation of achieving. This series will be looking for that new level of training to translate to an improvement of quality on the field.

With the foundations laid last year, the women’s rugby structure has also started to take shape off the field – with the appointment of Jilly Collins as the new head of women’s rugby at Moore Park, and with the scheduling of at least two Test matches for the Wallaroos in 2019 and the possibility of an additional two yet to be confirmed.

The Australian men’s form and status may be hitting a few bumps in the lead up to the World Cup – and there is certainly some trepidation for the Australian conference ahead of the Super Rugby season – but the women’s game seems to be forging a path of its own.

With the annual competition now in place, some discussion has emerged on how to best serve the development pathway and achieve the ultimate goal of giving the Wallaroos the ammunition they need to step up on the world stage. The debate has already started – not unlike those being had in AFLW and cricket circles – on how to expand the competition, not only to keep developing the game but to gain more exposure, marketing impact and therefore financial viability.

While some pundits are calling for trans-Tasman involvement in any future Super W fixtures, the captains have called for longer seasons as a first step to boost the development of women’s rugby in Australia. The view is to consolidate the pathway all the way from girls to Wallaroos, in the knowledge that more competition means more talent development and, of course, more exposure.

Thomas agrees, believing the development of talent through competition must happen within the Australian structure. “If we want to grow the game, I think it would be good to have a home and away series – giving us another four games against each other; more rugby with the opportunity to play twice and to learn from [that].

“We’ve got a global game to offer and if the Wallaroos are getting more Test matches, that grows the game to the point where it can drive the code of rugby in Australia for women.”

The second Super W season has not only uncovered a new array of talent in each of the teams but also brings with it new faces in the coaching ranks. In 2018, Thomas was the only female senior coach in the competition but this year she is joined by Queensland’s Moana Virtue, who has a strong recent record in women’s rugby as Wallaroos assistant and coach of the 2018 Uni Sevens champions, Griffith University.

Virtue’s inclusion in this season’s coaching ranks underlines the fact that the development of women involved in rugby is not only being seen on the field.

For the remaining three teams, Adam Butt heads the ACT Brumbies, Matt Evrard steps up for the NSW Waratahs women and Shannon Symon has moved from assistant to head coach in the west.

One key element which has contributed significantly to the growing success of women’s sport in Australia has been the long-awaited commitment of the media to support the sector.

For rugby it may be small steps on a longer path than those faced by other sports such as cricket, AFL and football, with live streaming the main form of coverage for the competition. Every match will be available on Rugby Australia’s digital media platform and also through Foxtel’s new sports streaming subscription service, Kayo Sports.

This is an expansion on last year’s coverage and will no doubt open the competition up to a larger viewing audience, but it is not yet in the mainstream of live television broadcasting (free-to-air or otherwise) with Fox Sports committing only to playback of those Super W games incorporated as part of any scheduled double-header with Super Rugby.

It is certain to raise questions and consternation from some quarters, but it is a step forward from 2018 and certainly from any previous incarnation of the coverage of women’s rugby in Australia. Patience may be required for this particular code as it finds its feet and its place in what has become an increasingly busy marketplace.

What remains to be seen is whether the Australian public and media will follow the recent trends of opening their hearts and minds to yet another course on the ever-expanding menu of women’s sport.

Contributor

Jill Scanlon

The GuardianTramp

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