It’s Grand Finals week in the NRL and NRLW, a time when junior players everywhere will be dreaming of one day running out to play on the biggest stage in rugby league.
In reality, getting to the top of the game requires a combination of talent, dedication and sacrifice, and the Westpac-sponsored RISE Rookie Academy aims to nurture those qualities in a ground-breaking program for promising female players.
The program for players aged 17 and above was started in 2022 to help grow the talent pool in the women’s game ahead of the NRLW’s expansion to 10 teams in 2023.
“The goal of the RISE Rookie program is to fill the gap in the pathway from club and representative level into the NRLW,” says national coordinator Caitlin Knox.
The focus is on getting the girls fitter, faster and stronger in order to prepare them to play at the highest level, Knox says. With a lot of the participants joining from other sports such as touch football or OzTag, where there is minimal contact, they also get coached on how to tackle, and be tackled.
Bri Dean grew up playing netball, but was inspired by her footy-veteran mum to give rugby a go. She was spotted by RISE’s head coach Robert Taylor who asked her to try out.
“I thought it would be a good opportunity to learn from other people – to get different perspectives from girls that are new to the game and those that are experienced,” says Bri.
The Academy also puts a lot of emphasis on the mental side of the game, from building a strong team culture to providing advice on health, nutrition and wellbeing. There are even plans to draw on Westpac’s expertise to provide a learning module on financial literacy.
“If they're wanting to take the next step in the game and they're aspirational, it’s about asking: what does it take to get there and how do professional athletes think and what do they do,” says Knox.
The women’s game is growing at a rapid pace and female players can now see a genuine pathway to becoming a professional in the sport, Knox says.
Westpac is splitting its sponsorship of rugby league equally between the men and women – a first for any sporting code in Australia, while broadcaster Channel 9 has made all 48 games in the 2023 NRLW season available free-to-air, further raising the profile of the game.
“With the expansion of the game this year, a lot more young girls are looking at the NRLW as a natural pathway and thinking: I can actually do that for a job now, which is really cool,” Knox says.
And as for running out to a packed stadium for a Grand Final, some of the girls from the Academy got a taste of what that might be like earlier this year when they got to play at CommBank Stadium in Parramatta in a curtain-raiser game for the women’s State of Origin match.
For Bri, it was an unforgettable memory, and one that has inspired her to target a professional career in the game. Her sights are set on one day representing her native New Zealand in the World Cup, as she eagerly awaits the next round of the program.