Rugby Australia risk losing some of their best talent to NRLW

With the World Cup a year away, Rugby Australia risk losing some of their top women's players to rival code rugby league with Australian sevens and Wallaroos players offered contracts to play in this season's NRLW competition.

With the Wallaroos' tour of New Zealand in September cancelled, the team has been without a Test match since their last clash with the Black Ferns in 2019 and with RA yet to secure any further matches later this year, star players such as Mahalia Murphy have been in the sights of NRL clubs with the Roosters and Newcastle Knights hunting the fullback's signature.

Some of Australia's leading sevens players are also in NRLW sights with Evania Pelite, a standout performer in the women's failed Tokyo campaign, rumoured to be on the Gold Coast Titans' radar.

Players like Murphy are desperate to get game time with COVID-19 impacting not only the scheduled Test matches, but also the Super W competition which was truncated to a three-week tournament in Coffs Harbour and was reduced to five teams after the Western Force dropped out after the first round, while club competitions in NSW and Victoria were abandoned.

According to the 27-year-old, RA are currently in discussions with New Zealand Rugby to set up a one-off clash with the Black Ferns either as they travel to Europe for their end of year tour, or upon their return. But if RA are unable to get the match organized, or alternatively a Wallaroos training camp together, Murphy and several of her teammates could sign with NRLW sides.

With the NRLW competition delayed until January, many players are weighing up their options.

"I was asked to play for the Knights and Roosters for NRLW, but obviously we had Test matches in place so it wasn't an option," Murphy told ESPN. "While they've been cancelled we're still looking at getting together for a training camp plus internal games so until we find out if we're to play in October or are able to get together as a squad I most likely won't be able to play NRLW.

"It's not really the money, it's just more that I want to play. I definitely wanted to go back to NRLW because I just want to play and that's pretty much the only other thing that I had in mind.

"If there was no chance of Test matches I'd be back there, but at the moment it's just a waiting game, which sucks because we could be playing league if we're not playing Tests, and I think it's important just to get some game time, just play some footy, keep game fit, stuff like that.

"I do know there were a couple of keen beans who wanted to play if our Test matches are cancelled and if we have no test matches in general. But I think everyone's still got the mindset of focusing on Wallaroos camp and Wallaroos Test matches that we're possibly going to have, but it's just all a matter of time when we find out."

Murphy, Pelite, sevens star Charlotte Caslick and Wallaroos captain Grace Hamilton have all played in the NRLW before, but with Covid wreaking havoc on the World Series sevens calendar and preparations for the women's Rugby World Cup in 2022, rugby league's more secure program appears enticing.

"Lack of game time and lack of games obviously affect our participation numbers," Murphy told ESPN. "League's got a couple of competitions even before NRLW, they've got the Harvey Norman competition in NSW, then State of Origin and Jillaroos stuff, so with a lack of game time it will affect our numbers and affect drawing girls across and keeping them here."

With just over a year until the rescheduled women's Rugby World Cup, the Wallaroos preparations have been less than ideal, their five scheduled Test matches for 2020 were cancelled and they remain coachless after Dwayne Nestor and assistant coach Matt Tink were stood down and then resigned following a controversial incident at the Super W tournament in July.

Despite the lack of preparation, and the offers to play elsewhere, Murphy knows her teammates are still fully focused on the journey ahead.

"In two years all we could do was kind of play against each other in Australia, with Super W and club rugby, so we haven't really been able to play together or train as much together as we normally would, but I'm hoping things will change.

"It's really important we get some games leading into the World Cup, especially with our newest Wallaroos squad including new girls, so we'd rather obviously begin prepping sooner rather than leave it to the last minute.

"The girls aren't frazzled, though, we're still focused on what's ahead and our goals haven't really altered. Losing a coach is a bit of a hiccup, but we're just staying focused and not worrying about what's ahead."

While the Black Ferns, a semi-professional outfit, will travel to England and France for a four match end of year tour, the Wallaroos, who are also semi-professional, have no such plans with Murphy and her teammates left craving Tests.

"Definitely, we were hopeful of getting some games like the Black Ferns, especially leading into the World Cup next year. The Wallaroos don't get together in a full time program, so we normally get together like twice a year for Tests and we really look forward to those times together so to have nothing this year sucks.

"When I first joined the Wallaroos back in 2017 we were playing twice a year and then in 2019 we got to play four games and then last year we were expected to play I think five or six Test matches and that was against teams like the USA and other countries not just New Zealand. We're definitely getting more game time but obviously Covid is affecting that."

Featuring in the Wallaroos last World Cup campaign in 2017, Murphy has been an integral player over the years and has witnessed the team grow and develop, and she hopes to play a large role again for her team as either fullback or on the wing.

"I think from last World Cup looking at the squad from back then and the standard of our skills and our knowledge the squad has really developed so much since then and obviously we had hoped to be able to play and build over the last couple of years leading into this next World Cup, so it's been really exciting seeing the squad grow and develop skill wise," Murphy told ESPN.

"I love fullback because I just love the feeling of receiving the kick and you've got so much time and space to read the defence and decide whether to run the ball or not.

"I love the feeling of being able to inject myself anywhere as a fullback, you can kind of fall into the line if you want and pull forward, and then you can go out the back whenever you want. But I also love being out on the wing, because obviously you're the one they want to get the ball to and just run at speed.

"I love both positions, but if I was able to choose, it'd be fullback."