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How we’ll build it: The Warriors' approach to NRLW re-entry

Six years is a long time in rugby league at the best of times, but in the women's game right now it’s an eternity.

Just ask the Warriors, who are in the process of rebuilding their NRLW program for re-entry in 2025 amid a landscape that looks completely different to the one they navigated when they were first part of the competition back in 2018. 

At that time they basically had their pick of the incumbent Kiwi Ferns team, which bar a couple of players, was made up of New Zealand based talent who played in the Auckland women's competition. 

A handful were swept up by the other three foundation clubs that year, but for the most part high-profile players like Kiwi Ferns skipper Laura Mariu, hooker Krystal Rota and fullback Apii Nicholls landed in the Warriors' lap and became pillars of their first squad. 

Members of the inaugural Warriors NRLW squad in 2018.
Members of the inaugural Warriors NRLW squad in 2018. ©NRL Photos

Now, seven years on, they face a totally different challenge when it comes to attracting players.

The expansion of the NRLW to now include 10 teams, which will become 12 next year, means almost all of the elite-level players from New Zealand have been signed up by Australian clubs.

Some of the country's best teenage talent are also hopping on planes in order to pursue opportunities across the ditch. 

No current Kiwi Ferns play full-time in New Zealand club competitions anymore, with national team selectors having little choice but to pull completely from the NRLW competition in order to try and compete with the Jillaroos consistently. 

So if they can't rely on finding NRLW-ready talent at home, and don't have an existing pool of lower-grade players on their books – unlike clubs such as the Bulldogs who were granted entry alongside them for 2025 – how will the Warriors go about building their ‘inaugural squad 2.0'?

Cross-code targets and get-out clauses

Right away the club have an unanticipated ace up their sleeve on the recruitment front, with several prominent Kiwi players having had clauses included in their current NRLW contracts which state they can leave if and when the Warriors re-enter the competition. 

It remains to be seen how many will choose to exercise that option, but it's a handy situation for the Warriors, who say they will wait for any such players to come to them rather than actively seeking them out. 

There are also plenty of players coming off contract at the end of the current season who are from New Zealand and only moved in recent times in order to play in the NRLW. 

Included on that list are current Kiwi Ferns Laishon Albert-Jones, Abigail Roache, Apii Nicholls and Cook Islands rep Mackenzie Wiki. 

Abigail Roache could not stop scoring

Nadene Conlon, who the Warriors signed on to head up their female development and pathways programme back in March last year, says there is also a chance that some of their squad might not even be playing rugby league currently. 

With the Paris Olympics taking place in the middle of this year, there are likely to be a number of New Zealand rugby sevens players who are looking for their next opportunity, just as the Warriors are firming up their roster for 2025. 

“I think a lot of the girls will be looking at what sort of opportunities might be about after their Olympics… so it could be that some come from other codes," Conlon says. 

We'll be looking at the athlete as a whole and won't have tunnel vision. We need to keep the door open and look at all avenues.

Nadene Conlon Warriors NRLW academy manager

“Those girls that have been in a high-performance arena and understand the standard required and understand what's needed in a team culture, all those things can be really valuable, so it's not just necessarily what they bring on the field."

Several players have made successful transitions from rugby union to the NRLW since the competition's inception, while premiership-winning Knights winger Sheridan Gallagher moved to rugby league after previously captaining the Young Matildas football team. 

'Making the switch': Williams-Guthrie's journey to NRLW

Establishing a pathway at home

There is no doubting the amount of female rugby league talent that exists in New Zealand, nor the quality of it, but as is case in the men's game, the Warriors will face stern competition to get their hands on it. 

In the absence of an elite female junior pathway that most of the other 11 clubs will be able to offer through having teams in competitions like the Lisa Fiaola Cup (U17s) in New South Wales and Harvey Norman U19s in Queensland, the Warriors will have to find a way to serve up attractive development opportunities on home soil. 

"We’ve just built our junior pathways in the men’s game and it’s come at a cost. We are certainly going to have to look at how that looks in the female space as well," Warriors general manager of recruitment, development and pathways Andrew McFadden says.

"I know there are some opportunities with the New Zealand Rugby League around developing some domestic competitions that may alleviate that, but that’s all to be played out. 

“I think we will probably mirror the same philosophy on the women’s side as we do with the men, where we want to develop local players.

"That might take a bit more time, obviously there’s been a fairly big exodus of young talent from New Zealand for the last couple of years.

"We have been aware of it, but it’s been very difficult for us to do anything about it without a guaranteed pathway opportunity for them."

The evolution of the NRLW

There are also challenges that come with dealing with such a large geographical area, given the Warriors intend to offer opportunities to players across the country, not just in Auckland and its neighbouring regions. 

In some cases it will mean combining newly formed girls' academies in smaller areas of the country with the existing boys' setups there that already have staff and resources, with everyone training together where appropriate. 

Providing a boost to the domestic scene

When the announcement about NRLW re-entry was made in March this year it wasn't just a win for the Warriors, but indeed the women's game across New Zealand. 

In addition to most of the elite talent in domestic competitions leaving over the past few seasons, the New Zealand Rugby League was aware that an increasingly younger group of players were also heading across the ditch in search of opportunities in the NRLW. 

"We had a big exodus with some of our younger ones going to Australian competitions at the beginning of the year. We're talking about a pool of really talented 16, 17 and 18-year-olds," NZRL head of women's rugby league Luisa Avaiki says. 

"We had a lot of players exit last year from senior competitions too, and even this year with teams in the top-level competitions you can see a lot of change and it's looking like a younger [age of player] in that competition.

"So it's massive for us in New Zealand and for our game at all levels to have the Warriors back. 

It means our pathways for our women are a bit clearer and our young girls have genuine options at home.

Luisa Avaiki NZRL head of women's rugby league

"It's great for our girls and our women to know that if you aren't in a position to go overseas, or you don't want to go, there's a chance to stay home and be involved in the NRLW still."

Conlon adds that it will be an important focus for the club to help re-strengthen the local scene from the top down.  

“Ideally what it will do with having the team in New Zealand again is it will work backwards and more girls will stay here, which will also hopefully help the competitions here rebuild and the competitions will become a little bit stronger,” Conlon says.

“They are definitely strong in that 13 to 18 age group anyway, but it's the senior grade that's feeling the brunt of a lot of girls going offshore.

“In a perfect world that is what we'd like; that we can pick players from the club footy here.

"The realisation will come that girls can actually stay here and play with their grassroots clubs and they don't have to go offshore to be recognised, they can get recognised here.”

Acknowledgement of Country

The New Zealand Warriors honour the mana of the Indigenous peoples of Aotearoa, Australia and the Pacific. We acknowledge the traditional kaitiaki of the lands, elders past and present, their stories, their traditions, their mamae and their mana motuhake.

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