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A star is born but old powers still reign in round one of the NRLW

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After almost 18 months, the NRLW has finally returned with a landmark triple-header kicking off the biggest season of women’s rugby league ever.

With three teams making their debuts at Hunter Stadium and new-look sides for the three returning clubs, there was plenty to take away from the competition’s first round.

Here’s one thing we learned from each side during the first round of the competition.

Parramatta Eels 

Stars win matches

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The Eels put together a very strong squad with plenty of big names for their first NRLW campaign and it paid off in their come-from-behind win over the Knights. 

Simaima Taufa was Parramatta’s best, with the veteran forward helping to turn the tide after half-time, scoring a try and using her strength and power to control the middle third of the field. 

Blues Origin duo Botille Vette-Welsh and Tiana Penitani combined for Parramatta’s other score and another representative veteran, Maddie Studdon, kicked the winning drop goal, the first one-pointer in NRLW history, with barely 30 seconds left on the clock. 

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The quartet has the kind of big-game experience money can’t buy and it showed as the Eels saw off a fearsome challenge from the willing Knights. 

“That’s their responsibility in this team. Every team has those sorts of players and they stepped up today and showed their quality,” Eels coach Dean Widders said. 

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“I think it was admirable to see the girls hang in the way they did. Mimes was enormous today. At the toughest times, she came up with the biggest plays.

“That’s where the women’s game is going and that’s what a lot of the young girls in that Parramatta dressing shed got a lesson in today.” 

It was a glorious moment for Studdon, who wore plenty of criticism for her failure to find the killer touch for New South Wales in last year’s Origin loss to Queensland. 

“I said to my forwards, ‘Just block me,’ and I had to get that pass and I was going for it,” Studdon said.

“I looked at the clock when there were three minutes to go and we were down the other end and I got my forwards together and said, ‘I need you to work us down that other end because I’m going to go for the field goal.’

“Deano said it would come down to field goals and he was right. We’ve been practising and I just had to do it.

“I was doing some goalkicking practice and he came over and said, ‘I need you guys to practice a field goal, but only one,’ and it paid off out there. 

“It felt unreal. With all the girls coming on me I had to hold them somehow.

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Newcastle Knights 

Enjoy Romy Teitzel while you can

Newcastle’s fullback and captain Romy Teitzel crossed for the Knights’ first-ever NRLW try just two minutes into their clash with Parramatta and was a stand-out throughout, showing plenty of the form that won her Queensland Cup player of the year honours in 2021.

The Knights will give plenty of teams a scare this season whenever Teitzel, lock forward Rona Peters and utility Kirra Dibb link together, but the Novocastrians might be set for a good time with Teitzel rather than a long one.

With North Queensland aiming to enter the NRLW for this year’s second season, Teitzel will be a prime target as a Townsville junior. The former Bronco could well find the lure of home impossible to resist.

But Teitzel is a Knight for the next six weeks at least, and there’s still plenty of footy to be played.

Newcastle entered the season as wooden spoon favourites but showed plenty of spirit and skill in their narrow defeat to the Eels, even allowing for the lack of poise late in the match when some of the last-tackle options left much to be desired. 

Phoebe Desmond’s work off the bench at dummy half and Emma Manzelmann’s rampaging try from close range in the second half were highlights in a tough and gritty performance.

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St George Illawarra

Rachel Pearson is a star

With the expansion of the NRLW this season there will be plenty of new stars, but Dragons halfback Rachel Pearson might shine the brightest.

Pearson was the best player on the field in the Dragons 20-12 win over the Titans and dictated terms for the Red V’s attack with an expert’s touch.

Her kicking game in particular was superb and the key difference between the two sides. At 28, Pearson is a mature-age rookie with a background in soccer, AFL and league tag, and her varied skill set has her well placed to become one of the league’s top playmakers.

The Dragons rallied behind their new playmaker, Rachel Pearson. (Getty Images, Ashley Feder)

“She’s got one of the most natural drops of the ball when kicking it that I’ve ever seen — men’s or women’s,” Dragons coach Jamie Soward said.

“She used to kick the AFL footy with her dad and you can see she’s got that good technique. I was really happy for Rat. She’s under a lot of pressure this year.

“I remember what it was like being coached as a young half by Ricky Stuart and how intense it was, so I’ve tried to keep it as light as possible, but she was fantastic today and still has a lot of growth to go.

“She didn’t know if she was ready for NRLW or higher honours. I think she does now.”

Pearson narrowly missed out on an Origin berth for the Blues last season and the Hay product will go head to head with incumbent New South Wales halfback Studdon when the Dragons clash with Parramatta next week.

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Gold Coast Titans

The only way is up

New teams will always have growing pains and the Titans were rather disjointed for much of the opening half, with halves Grace Griffin and Kimiora Breayley-Natai struggling to find the right fifth-tackle options.

It was a disjointed display from the Titans in general, which is something to be expected of a new side, but coach Jamie Feeney was pulling no punches after the match.

“It’s a steep learning curve for the girls,” he said.

“You give away that much footy and you’re never going to win.

“We got close, but to be honest and it’s not what most coaches would say, but I’m glad we lost because we didn’t deserve to win.

“We’ve prepared really well. I’ll guarantee we never dropped that much footy at training. We did a lot of defence in the pre-season and I’m glad we did. Otherwise it would have been 50-12, not just 20.

“It’s a learning curve for these girls.”

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Brisbane Broncos 

Still the class act

They might have lost a couple of players to rival clubs, but the Broncos are still the class act of the NRLW and their emphatic 20-4 win over the Roosters showed their superiority.

The Roosters have put together a fine squad and were expected to give Brisbane a real fight only for the Broncos’ usual suspects – fullback Tamika Upton, prop Millie Boyle and halfback Ali Brigginshaw – to totally tear the Tricolours apart.

Upton in particular was in superb form, setting up the opening try to Emily Bass with a slick long ball before creating another for Boyle in the second half via a mazy run up the middle of the field.

Boyle finished with over 200 metres and is clearly the best forward in the women’s game. Fellow prop Chelsea Lenarduzzi also produced a strong showing.

“I probably thought in the first half we were all holding back,” Brigginshaw said.

“I don’t think we were running with full intent.

“But Chelsea came out for the second half [and] she was on another level. 

“She was bumping girls off. She looked to run a lot more.”

Brisbane also boasts greater cohesion than most other NRLW sides, with the vast majority of the players having been with the club for several seasons – a major boost when it comes to establishing combinations.

We’re only one game into the season, but the Broncos will again take some serious stopping in the premiership race.

A woman charges over defenders during a rugby league match
Lenarduzzi was powerful in the middle of the field. (Getty Images, Ashley Feder)

Sydney Roosters

Mixed bag for star centres

Plenty has been written and said about the Roosters’ dynamic centre combination, but Isabelle Kelly and Jess Sergis had vastly different performances in the loss to Brisbane.

Despite being beaten cold by her Broncos counterpart Shenae Ciesiolka for Emily Bass’ first try, Kelly was arguably the Roosters’ best player and popped up all over the field in an effort to get involved.

Roosters coach John Strange had indicated he would give both Kelly and Sergis roving commissions in an effort to get the duo involved, but Sergis had a quiet debut for her new club.

There were a couple of trademark charges from the former Dragon, but she didn’t go looking for the ball as readily as Kelly.

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