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No rain on this parade as true believers are treated to a classic State of Origin night | Jack Snape

They said this was going to be a watershed moment for women’s rugby league. The 25,782 fans who braved an inundated McDonald Jones Stadium in Newcastle on Thursday for the memorable second Women’s State of Origin understood that better than anyone – figuratively and literally.

But their efforts were worth it. These true believers left with memories of one of Origin’s classic nights. And they proved a new model of mass rugby league support: both younger and older, less disposed to the booze, and seemingly liberated from gendered thinking.

A week out from this fixture, the weather forecast emerged as a potential issue. Such is the momentum around the women’s game, the atmosphere’s great forces looked a fitting match-up. There was irony too, as the Sky Blues chased a series win under dark skies.

But rugby league’s women have long bettered adversity: that much is already known. What was genuinely uncertain about Thursday was whether the fans would brave the conditions. The light rain of the afternoon had officials adjusting expectations to around 27,000 of the 30,000-seat capacity. Young families or those who received complementary tickets, it was assumed, would be less likely to suffer the predicted drizzle.

Drizzle? Try again. The players, shivering in the sheds at the end of the match, can attest it was something else. 17mm fell across the evening, climaxing in a swirling tempest just as Ali Brigginshaw put in Shenae Ciesiolka for the Maroons’ first try.

The increasing rain in the hours before the match had New South Wales Rugby League officials dismayed. Much had been made of the sell-out, and that the game was to set a new crowd record, beating the 25,492 from Suncorp three weeks ago. The rise of women’s league rise appeared set to catch a snag.

They needn’t have worried. Poncho upon poncho streamed through the gates. Families huddled together before the match in the stadium’s undercarriage, sharing hot chips and tomato sauce. One grandmother decked out in blue sat patiently on the emergency fire stairs, trying to stay as dry as possible before kick-off. A passing security guard, walking amongst the good-natured chaos, was happy to turn a blind eye.

So when the fireworks exploded above the players as they ran out, the sight was one to behold. Despite the incessant rain, there was barely a spare seat in the house. In they had come, supporting the junior women’s Hunter Region versus Central Coast curtain-raiser. Wearing their local colours, of league, but also netball, and hockey.

This was a community’s chance to show its pride. Stuart Greville and his nine-year-old son Jack were there with more than half his year four class from St James’ Kotara South. Knights halfback Jesse Southwell – controversially left out of the Sky Blues side – had visited the school last year. The father said the boys were just excited to have an Origin in town. “Gender’s not a problem,” he said.

Jessika Elliston and Shannon Mato of the Maroons at full-time in Newcastle. Photograph: Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

Newcastle has a reputation as a proud rugby league city. Now, it is the capital of women’s rugby league. The Knights are back-to-back NRLW premiers, driven to success by Queensland star Tamika Upton and her teammates. And they attract crowds the envy of the competition, including the standalone attendance record of 12,689 for their semi-final last season.

Tickets were available for $15 but many sports have wrestled with how to charge for access to women’s matches. The AFLW opened with a strategy of open access, and kids can still get in for free, as they can at A-League Women’s games. But experts have warned it’s a fine balance between creating a fear of missing out, and devaluing the product.

This match delivered much of what Origin has become known for. There were punishing tackles, an arm-wrestle of a contest, desperate defence. Then there were the flashes of skill that makes rugby league the game loved by millions: Brigginshaw’s pass for Cesiolka’s try, Romy Teitzel’s skidding kick-off, and of course Lauren Brown’s match-winning field goal.

Queensland captain Brigginshaw, speaking after what she described as a career highlight, thought it was important not to get carried away by the sport’s first major women’s sell-out. She said she wouldn’t increase ticket prices, and that women’s rugby league’s future is about carving out its own breed of support.

“We bring out families and it’s a nice environment for you to bring any age – kids and grandparents and people like that – to our game,” she said. “Sometimes it’s not like that in the men’s game, it’s a bit more of a party scene.”

Afterwards, she clarified she wasn’t having a dig at men’s footy crowds, but the words – from the 34-year-old veteran, who had called for the sport’s Matildas moment less than a month ago – carried weight.

“I’ve got lots of family and friends that probably don’t always go to NRL games, but they love coming to our game because they can bring all their kids with no matter their age, so I’d like to think that we’re going for a different angle.”

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