Upton a worthy winner of another Murphy medal

I've spent a lot of time thinking about Karyn Murphy this week.

Murphy was Australian Jillaroo number 41. After making her debut in 1998 against Fiji, she played 15 seasons for Australia and captained them for 14 years. By the time she retired in 2013 she had played 27 Test matches and is still considered by many to be the best halfback to ever represent Australia in the women's game.

Today, Murphy made history again by becoming the first woman to be in charge of a grand final team.

Unfortunately her team did not get their maiden Premiership win, but they came close, going down to the Newcastle Knights 24-18.

Despite the loss, there was something very special in seeing someone who has contributed so significantly to the women's game, present the medal named after her to the best player in women's game right now, Tamika Upton.

It was Upton who was the difference this afternoon. She scored two tries, both in the second half and set up two tries in the first to lead Newcastle to their second consecutive grand final win.

Upton has always been an incredible player, but in the past couple of seasons she has been hampered by injury. She has played a full season this year and has dominated; now winning a State of Origin series, the Dally M Medal and consecutive Karyn Murphy medals.

Leading into this game there was conversation about who would be the Australian Jillaroos fullback in the upcoming internationals, but there is no doubt that it needs to be Upton. She is the best amongst a talented class of fullbacks in the NRLW including Botille Vette-Welsh, Evania Pelite and Tegan Berry.

Much has been made of the Titans and their turn around; they finished with the wooden spoon in season 2022 and now featured in the grand final. The same happened for the Knights though, who finished the 2021 season at the bottom of the ladder.

Even after losing players like Millie Boyle and Emma Manzelmann at the end of 2022, the Knights still dominated this season, only losing one game early in the season to the North Queensland Cowboys and now have back-to-back Premierships to show for it.

Then there are the Titans, the self-professed 'junk yard dogs' of the competition. They were exceptional today, but made a couple of mistakes in key moments which led to points for the Knights. In particular, during that first half, the Knights had three opportunities and scored on the edges three times.

In a losing team, Jaime Chapman was incredible, scoring three tries. She is tough and strong and epitomises the spirit of this Titans team.

We are at a wonderful point in the NRLW right now.

We've seen standout performances from established stars like Tamika Upton, Ali Brigginshaw, Simaima Taufa, Isabelle Kelly and Shannon Mato.

The competition has expanded, with internationals featuring from England like Georgia Roche and Francesca Goldthorp.

Then the next generation of players has emerged. Players like Jakiya Whitfeld, Chantay Kiria-Ratu, Rilee Jorgensen, Sheridan Gallagher and Annessa Biddle who are stars of the future.

There's players who have come to us from other codes like Grace Kemp, Sheridan Gallager and Niall Williams-Guthrie.

Then there are veterans like Steph Hancock. The joke in the women's game is that she has had more farewell tours than John Farnham, but could this have been her last game?

Hancock made her debut for Australia before some of her younger teammates were even born, but that hasn't stopped her forming a close bond with several of them, particularly Jorgensen who loves nothing more than 'whacking people' when she gets onto the field.

That's one of the most enjoyable things about this Titans team. They have the experience of veterans like Hancock and Karina Brown, but at the same time, the most teenagers to ever feature in a rugby league grand final. The previous record was held by the St George Illawarra Dragons in the NRLW with four in the 2019 grand final and then in the men's you have to go all the way back to 1931 when Easts fielded three teenagers in their grand final team.

We will continue to see the mix in the coming seasons. For the talent pool to grow we will continue to rely on veterans to lead the way, talent from other codes and the rugby league pathways beginning to bear fruit.

As enjoyable as this season has been, I think it's important to take pause before any further expansion takes place.

The reality is, as the talent pool develops in the NRLW, the difference between a team's best player and their 30th best player is much wider than in the NRL.

That means when a team loses one of their best players, it is hard to replace them.

The most obvious example of that was the Parramatta Eels who really struggled without Elsie Albert, Rachael Pearson and Kennedy Cherrington. But they are not the only team who were challenged, with the Cronulla Sharks being without Jada Taylor at points through the season and the same for the Wests Tigers who were challenged without Kezie Apps, Sarah Togatuki and Botille Vette-Welsh.

I'm already looking forward to season 2024 and as both the former wooden spoon Knights and the Titans have shown us; anything can happen.