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Scintillating Origin opener will be a watershed moment for women’s game

Of the potential of women’s rugby league, there have been glimpses. The vast turnout for the NRLW act of the code’s grand final double header in October last year. Promising Channel Nine ratings that are the envy of other female competitions. The near-20,000 attending last year’s Women’s State of Origin game two.

But this night, this spectacle, made eyes open wide. A scintillating Jaime Chapman, goose-stepping through the Maroons line. Caitlan Johnston, tears in her eyes at the anthem, the triumphant try at the end. Almost another famous Origin comeback from Queensland. And veteran Ali Brigginshaw, everywhere through everything.

All enjoyed by a record Women’s State of Origin crowd of 25,492, there for Australia’s best female players and no one else. The number flashing up on the big screen near the end, meaning almost as much as the score.

“It was so cool, and I shouldn’t look at the screens but I looked up and saw that, and it just makes you so proud,” Brigginshaw said afterwards. “Me and [NSW captain] Issy Kelly spoke at the end and just said, ‘how awesome was that?’”

This was a watershed moment for the sport. The product of years of graft and sacrifice for rugby league’s women. A recognition that all of it might just have been worth it.

There they were, running onto Lang Park, for the first time in a standalone Origin. Contesting a three-match series, in another first. Enveloped by an atmosphere more intense than any they had felt before.

The star was Chapman and her length-of-the-field try, illuminating the occasion. She scored a hat-trick in front of 40,000 at last year’s NRLW grand final, but this was different. “100%, it was definitely the loudest crowd that I’ve ever played in front of,” she said afterwards. Had she let herself enjoy the notion that her try had become the defining moment of this turning point in the game’s history? “Um, no, I only just got out of the shower.”

Much like this generation of Matildas, whose careers began in an era before superstardom, these rugby league warriors are very much human. Their pursuit is still largely semi-professional, and their first NRLW bargaining agreement was struck just last year. They are largely products of perseverance, and a love of the game.

Brigginshaw, the 34-year-old captain of the Maroons and Jillaroos, embodies the game’s awakening. She wrote in the Guardian this week women’s rugby league needed its own Matildas effect. After Thursday’s match – fittingly at the venue immortalised by Cortnee Vine’s penalty – Brigginshaw admitted how emotional it was running out in front of such a crowd, in a three-match Origin series. She even went out of her way to thank the NRL and the journalists for being part of the occasion. (“I’ve never been thanked by a men’s player,” one scribe muttered afterwards.)

To Brigginshaw, more than anyone, this moment mattered. “We had [former Jillaroo] Karyn Murphy come in and talk about the history of the game yesterday,” she said. “And it just means so much that I’ve got the opportunity to do that, and I played alongside some of those girls that only wish they could run out there.”

The transformation is under way, but it is not complete. Few understand that better than the powerful Johnston. She has been body shamed on social media, and called out keyboard warriors this week.

After her starring role on Thursday, she said the game’s building momentum will change perspectives. “Most of those people that have [made] those comments are probably people that have never watched the women’s game, so they can have their opinions all they like, but until you’ve actually sat there and watched the women’s game, I don’t think you can’t really judge it.”

Television ratings will also tell a story when they land on Friday, but the NRLW has shown promise. Last year more viewers watched NRLW matches than contests in the AFLW, according to sports industry analyst Jason Lassey, even though the AFLW held more than twice as many matches.

And of course, there is the small matter of filling the other half of Suncorp. That won’t happen for at least another year, but Kelly and Brigginshaw both said they believe the new attendance record will only stand until game two of this series, at the 30,000-capacity McDonald Jones Stadium in Newcastle on 6 June.

Brigginshaw is done waiting. “The result didn’t go our way [but] it’s a pretty cool feeling to know we just played in front of 25,000 in Brisbane and set the new record,” she said. “And no doubt we’re gonna go to Newy and set another record, so bring it on.”

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