Dragons veteran Holli Wheeler has added to the chorus of NRLW players calling for greater progress towards professionalism for the competition.
- Holli Wheeler says in order for the NRLW to continue growing the players need “a bigger pay packet” if full-time contract are not on the table
- Wheeler has been a member of the St George Illawarra Dragons squad since the competition’s inaugural season in 2018
- This year’s schedule includes the delayed 2021 NRLW competition and a 2022 season, State of Origin, a Rugby League World Cup and respective state championships
On the eve of what will be the busiest season ever, the pay gap between the men’s and women’s competition has been a talking point ever since NRL chief executive Andrew Abdo revealed he did not know when the women’s game could turn professional.
Wheeler, who has been with St George Illawarra since the competition’s inaugural season in 2018, believes the vast majority of NRLW players already conduct themselves as professional players – they just don’t have the compensation to show for it.
“Professionalism is the ultimate goal. We’re working towards that. We understand you have to build that fanbase and that support and we’re grateful for the support we’ve already had, but we want to continue to grow,” Wheeler said.
“For us to be able to expand the game we have to be able to focus on footy and until we have that equal pay it’s going to be hard. There’s a lot of girls I know who work full-time who have had to try and work things out with their employers to try and get to training and make that commitment.
“The next step, especially after this year, is a bigger pay packet so we can commit more, even if it’s not fully yet – something where footy could be our priority and then we get a casual or part-time job on the side.
“The way we see it is we are professional athletes, we’re just on a part-time wage. Ali [Brigginshaw] is our leader and she speaks so well on what we deserve, you have to admire her for that. She’s been around a long time and she’s seen the changes, she’s been in the position where she had to pay to play and now she’s getting paid to play.
“We’re not taking that progress for granted, the women’s game is really respectful of that. But we treat ourselves as professionals and we take our job very seriously, even when we’re not contracted, and I think the money needs to reflect that.”
NRLW has come a long way but still has a way to go
Wheeler believes great strides have already been made in the women’s game in recent years as the NRLW season has become a greater part of the rugby league calendar.
The postponed 2021 season alone, featuring three new clubs, is proof of the game’s growth.
At 32, Wheeler has been part of women’s rugby league longer than most recalls plenty of naysayers in the early days who have since been won over.
“At the start, there was real mixed emotions, we were so happy there was a women’s NRL but there was a lot of negativity from people said it wasn’t worth it or it was crap,” Wheeler said.
“They’d specifically compare us to the men’s game and while we’re under the same umbrella, we play in completely different ways. Of course, we’re not as fast as the men’s game, but people have come to the table, even people who might not have been with us at the start. They see we play in a different way.
“There’s not as much wrestling or niggle and they can respect that, they enjoy how much the game flows well.
There have been incremental advances in each NRLW season, with Wheeler noticing an increase in professionalism through each campaign.
The other major change is the influx of players who have been playing rugby league consistently since their youth compared to players like Wheeler, who had to walk away from the game during their teens because there simply wasn’t a pathway.
“Each club has gone above and beyond, I can vouch for that, in terms of looking after the women’s game and each year we’ve added more professional aspects,” Wheeler said.
“Those little things, like recovery or training, that people don’t see make a huge difference, they’re the little things that help you focus on playing and nothing else.
“After this season there’s going to be a whole lot of new household names. This year is so big for all of us, but by the end of it, the women’s game is going to be a completely new space and end up right where it should be.
“There might be girls who haven’t played NRLW yet but they’ve been at this level for a long time, they’ve been through the pressure cooker.
“It’s going to show how much the game has grown and how much we’ve benefited from growing the game in recent years.”
After missing the entire 2020 season due to a knee reconstruction, Wheeler will line up at lock for the Dragons in their season opener against the Titans.
The battle between Wheeler, skipper Kezie Apps and Papua New Guinean prop Elsie Albert with the Titans superstar forward pack is one that promises to rattle the foundations of Newcastle International Sports Centre.
“For myself, Kez and Elsie there’s a real forward battle there and we’re going to relish it,” Wheeler said.
“They have a really strong pack and we’re looking forward to it.”
This weekend marks the start of a congested year for the game’s female players, who face an unprecedented level of action.
It includes the delayed 2021 competition, the 2022 NRLW season, State of Origin, a Rugby League World Cup and respective state championships.