NSW 'Underdogs' For Interstate Challenge
In rugby league – particularly before a big game – there's generally a race for which side will be first to claim the underdog tag.
Very rarely will you hear a captain or coach come forward and profess favouritism (at least publically), with interviews in the lead-up to the game laced with quotes downplaying their side's chances.
Whether it's 'flying under the radar' or claiming the opposition are in the box seat, the default position seems to always be modest and self-effacing.
That's very much the case for the NSW women's team, despite heading into the 2017 Interstate Challenge with the Nellie Doherty Cup in their possession for the first time.
After 17 years of disappointment, the Blues finally got one over their Queensland counterparts with a narrow 8-4 victory at Cbus Super Stadium last July.
NSW captain Ruan Sims played her part in the memorable victory – which she described as a "surreal moment" – but is adamant her side will have it all to do again when they clash with Queensland at WIN Stadium on July 23.
"I feel like we are the underdogs going into it," Sims told NRL.com. "Queensland's history is just so rich and so dominant, they were the leading light of rugby league for such an extended period.
"I feel like we're still trying to prove ourselves and find our feet."
As Sims continued to discuss the make-up of the NSW squad though, it was clear that this is one of the more impressive sides the Blues have fielded in the history of the contest.
Boasting eight current Jillaroos representatives, Ben Cross's charges will be bolstered by the inclusion of 2016 Dally M Female Player of the Year Kezie Apps, who has recovered well after breaking her leg at the Auckland Nines in February.
Apps missed the Jillaroos' Test win over the Kiwi Ferns in Canberra in May, a night in which young outside back Isabelle Kelly announced her arrival on the representative scene. Kelly played on the wing for Australia, but will move inside to form a potent edge combination that will have Queensland on notice.
"She's going to be phenomenal, she's already an amazing talent," Sims said of her teammate Kelly. "She's just such an athlete and a competitor, her footy skills are increasing every single day, I'm so glad she's on my side.
"Outside of her is a young girl called Jess Surgis, the two of them are almost identical moulds of each other. I really feel like Kezie, Izzy and Jess on that edge are really going to cause a lot of trouble for Queensland."
Sims also revealed NSW have more than one ace up their sleave with versatile back Caitlin Moran to start in the halves alongside Maddie Studdon. While Studdon will control proceedings with her cool head, expert game management and kicking game, Moran's role will evolve throughout the contest, providing perhaps just the wildcard NSW need.
"Caitlin, she's so good on her feet. She reads really well and she can also jump in to that hooker role every now and then," Sims said.
"I think that will create a few headaches for the defensive line when they're looking at her, she's in at hooker and the hooker's standing wide as a first- or second-receiver."
One player conspicuous by her absence on the NSW squad list is Allana Ferguson, the Sharks, NSW and Jillaroos rep cut from the squad of 30 when it was reduced to 18.
While Ferguson will still form part of the squad as a shadow player, Sims said it's a troublesome shoulder – rather than form – that's keeping the playmaker from taking to the field in this year's Interstate Challenge.
"Unfortunately for 'Fergo', her shoulder has been playing up since the Nines. You can probably remember the footage, she got a really late pass and got absolutely poleaxed.
"That shoulder just hasn't been the same, she hasn't had much footy under her belt. The coaches were just wanting to make sure they looked after her welfare as well as putting the team first."
NSW might look strong on paper but Queensland will be packing some serious talent of their own with Steph Hancock, Karina Brown, Jenni-Sue Hoepper and former Kiwi Ferns international Rona Peters all named.
The 'state against state, mate against mate' mantra is alive and well in the women's clash, Sims adamant that while friendships will be put to one side for the annual interstate tussle things will be a lot less hostile come full-time.
"We're good friends, we're not just footy mates," Sims said of her connection with fellow front-rower Hancock.
"We've got a really great friendship, as I do with Heather Ballinger and Renae Kunst. The four of us are the '82 babies in the Jillaroos team, we're the old ducks of the team!
"Their forward pack is going to be really strong. They've named Rona Peters at lock, she won player of the tournament at their state carnival. On an edge Renae is going to be hard for us to handle, and Zahara Temara is another one who's going to be key for us to keep an eye on."
NSW will defend the Nellie Doherty Cup for the first time as they take on Queensland at WIN Stadium on Sunday July 23rd, with kick-off at 11:45am prior to the Dragons-Sea Eagles NRL clash at 2pm.
This article first appeared on NRL.com