The St George Illawarra Dragons have announced the signings of Queensland players Annette Brander, Kate Haren and Asipau Mafi for the NRL Holden Women's Premiership.
Haren and Mafi (Wests Brisbane Panthers) and Brander (Souths) play in the SEQ Women's Division 1 competition and are also currently in the NRL's 40-woman elite squad and have been signed by the Dragons as free agents.
While all three have previously played for Queensland, backrower Brander has also been a mainstay of the Australia Jillaroos since her Test debut back in 2014.
Brander – who works as a legal assistant – has fortunately been granted leave for the entire competition by her employer and cannot wait to give her all for the Dragons.
"It's a big move overall, and I'm not one for change often but just to be a part of the first Women's Premiership is a massive thing," the 2018 Queensland Origin Players' Player Brander said.
"I'm really excited for this challenge and to be out of my comfort zone at the Dragons because I never thought I'd get the chance to play for any NRL team during my career.
"Asi (Mafi) and I have roomed together before when we were in camp for the elite squad, and we have actually organised to road trip from Brisbane which will be another experience in itself."
Front-rower Mafi coincidentally made her Queensland debut in Wollongong in 2017, and said the chance to play alongside the Dragons' local elite was something she never envisioned would happen.
"Wollongong was definitely somewhere I was keen to come back to after playing for Queensland there. Now to play with some of the best players in women's rugby league like Kezie Apps, Sammy Bremner and Talesha Quinn is amazing," Mafi said.
"To be under their leadership and in their stomping ground, I can't wait to take on this opportunity."
Back-rower Haren hails from Innisfail in Queensland's north and described signing with the Dragons as a dream come true.
As Innisfail doesn't currently have a women's team, Haren trains with the men's side and completes a seven-hour journey – via car and plane – to play for the Wests Brisbane Panthers with the likes of Mafi every weekend.
"I'm looking forward to the change of scenery and the opportunities that lie ahead. For a long time, I didn't think this would be a possibility," Haren said.
"Coming from such a small town and community to be one of the first ever to play in the NRL as a woman, I'm hoping we're able to pave the way for other young girls.
"It's amazing to think that not that long ago we were paying our own way to play at the Queensland titles and for the Queensland side. The professionalism now that is involved with women's sport is astounding.”
Dragons Women's Premiership coach Daniel Lacey couldn't believe his luck when told the Queensland trio weren't picked in June's marquee signing period.
"We struggled to comprehend how Annette (Brander) was still available once when the marquee signing period ended. I let her concentrate on the State of Origin period thereafter, and from then she took her game up a level," Lacey said.
"While other clubs were chasing her, we are so proud of this signing because of the commitment and loyalty she showed us throughout.
"Asi (Mafi) is a really powerful middle player, she's worked really hard on her fitness and is really now motivated to maintain her standing as the top 40 player that she is and maximise the opportunity she now has at our club," Lacey added.
"As for Kate (Haren), she brings a wealth of experience to the Dragons. She's a rugby league tragic and wanted nothing more to be a part of the Women's Premiership. She is 100% behind playing for this club.
"Throughout our discussions, you could tell how committed she was to rugby league. She loves the game and you can tell that through her professionalism. It was great to be able to sign her because like Kate have given a lot to the game."
The Dragons' Holden Women's Premiership squad now sits at 19, with training scheduled to begin on Wednesday, August 1.
Further signings will be announced over the coming days once contracts are officially formalised.