St George Illawarra have announced nine New South Wales Origin stars as its first signings ahead of the Dragons' second NRL Holden Women's Premiership campaign later this year.
Back-rower Kezie Apps, wingers Jessica Sergis and Shakiah Tungai and inaugural Dragons Women's Player of the Year Holli Wheeler have all re-signed with the Red V following their starring roles in the club's maiden campaign in 2018.
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Experienced playmaker Maddie Studdon, recent National Championships MVP Tiana Penitani, Maori All Stars fullback Botille Vette-Welsh, Indigenous All Stars centre Shaylee Bent, and New South Wales Country front-rower Takilele Katoa will also join the Dragons in 2019.
All nine players will represent New South Wales at the Women's State of Origin on Friday, June 21 at North Sydney Oval.
"It's a great way to get the ball rolling for the Dragons ahead of the second season of the Women's Premiership. There's been a lot of hard work done behind the scenes with more time and preparation. We as a staff had a clear mind of what the squad needed to look like as a result," Dragons Women's Premiership coach Daniel Lacey said.
"We are really happy with the way we have started with these nine players. Our focus still remains on the Dragons' women's pathway too. We are really proud with how it has come along, and are still focused on developing our juniors into NRL players."
Long-term dual New South Wales and Australian rugby league and touch football representative Maddie Studdon - who also played her first senior football at Helensburgh - will add valuable experience to the team in a big boost for the Dragons' upcoming campaign.
Tiana Penitani is a name synonymous in Australian rugby sevens and Oztag circles, having represented her country at World Cups in both sports. The outside back has taken to rugby league quickly; her being awarded National Championships MVP with NSW City and selection for the Blues proving a testament to this.
"Maddie is a great get for us and will be a fantastic fit for the team. I've done a lot of homework on her in terms of not only how she'll help the Dragons' game but how we can help her game too," Lacey said.
"I was able to work with her in the NSW City team at the recent National Championships and I really took on board the importance that she does have on a team with her game management so she'll have a big influence on our team.
"Tiana is relatively new to rugby league but she has shown in a short amount of time how good she can be. She played for NSW City at the National Championships and the proof was in the pudding with what she can do," Lacey added.
"It was a no-brainer to sign her on the back of her current form and history in other sports."
Exciting prospect Vette-Welsh's ability to play anywhere in the spine will be cause for excitement, according to Lacey, following her recent starring role for NSW Country.
Katoa was another selected for NSW Country off the back of her big performances for the Riverina in the CRL competition. Having only taken up the game two years ago, Katoa has also already represented Tonga.
Bent would've been a Dragon if not for the competition's age restrictions in 2018. The NSW City representative has also proven recently that she's adept at moving to the forwards when required and will only get better with experience.
"It seems with Botille that no matter where you put her on the field, she contributes to any team she plays for in a big way. She has played fullback and hooker for NSW City and in the halves for the Wests Tigers' state premiership team so her versatility is really important for us," Lacey said.
"Seeing Takilele play for Riverina in the Country Rugby League competition, she was the best forward on the paddock for every one of their games. Off the back of that she was given the opportunity to represent NSW Country where she shined and now in the Origin team so it's really great to sign a girl at the top of her game.
"The last 12 months we have seen Shaylee develop into a strong ball-runner, a keen learner and someone who has a big future in the game. She showcased this while playing for the City team where she moved from the centres to the back row and came up against the likes of Kezie."
The re-signings of fan-favourites Apps, Wheeler, Sergis and Tungai will help reinforce and further build the positive culture established in the club's inaugural Women's Premiership campaign.
Off the back of their successful campaigns with the Dragons in 2018, all four women were recently rewarded places in the NRL's elite female pathways development squad.
"It's awesome to have the four of them recommit to the Dragons. They were a big part of our team last year and they have played a big part in the club planning for the future," Lacey said.
"We were always going to re-sign the players we thought could duplicate the job from 2018. Holli was the Dragons' inaugural Women's Player of the Year, Kezie stood up as captain when Sam (Bremner) was injured while Jess and Shak have kicked on with confidence and the benefits they received from playing at the Dragons last year."
The acquisition of the Dragons' first nine players for season 2019 leaves the club with 13 spots to be filled, ahead of September's competition.
The Dragons' Women's Premiership team is the pinnacle of the female rugby league pathway across the club's region – from Earlwood in Sydney to Bateman's Bay on the South Coast – with more than 15,000 girls and women from Under-6s to opens currently competing in our region across tackle, tag and touch football.
St George Illawarra's NRL Holden Women's Premiership squad (so far):
- Kezie Apps
- Shaylee Bent
- Takilele Katoa
- Tiana Penitani
- Jessica Sergis
- Maddie Studdon
- Shakiah Tungai
- Botille Vette-Welsh
- Holli Wheeler