One of the closest SEQ Women's Division 1 seasons on record will culminate this Saturday afternoon when the minor premiers West Brisbane face the defending champions Burleigh at Emerson Park.
Only five competition points separated first from fifth throughout an enthralling regular season, but the teams who finished first and second eventually came to the fore and will meet in the grand final for the second year in a row.
West Brisbane Panthers have led the SEQ Women's Division 1 competition since the conclusion of Round 1, finishing as minor premiers and becoming the first team to qualify for the grand final by defeating Brothers Ipswich 26-6 last weekend.
They have gone from strength-to-strength after last year’s grand final appearance and have set the standard for consistency in 2019.
“To finish on top after finishing fourth last year in itself is certainly an achievement and just shows the improvement of the group,” Panthers coach Craig Green said.
“It was always our aim to first of all finish the season well and then make it through to the grand final.
"That’s where we wanted to end up and now, we have an opportunity on Saturday to play in another grand final.”
The Panthers have overcome some adversity to become the competition’s front-runners, losing star players Julia Robinson and Heather Ballinger to injury.
Still fielding an outstanding team including State of Origin players Amy Turner and Lavinia Gould as well as veteran halves pairing Bo De La Cruz and Lana Sheedy, Green said his side’s ability to cover key injuries and not lose a step has been one of their biggest areas of improvement.
“Our depth is deeper than last year, and the girls now understand what it takes to play at this level,” Green said.
“When you lose Julia Robinson and Heather Ballinger to season-ending injuries, that certainly hurts the group, but all the players have stepped up and taken on extra responsibility.
“It’s not just turning up one night a week and then playing. The physicality of the game has improved so much that you need to be in the gym, and you need to be working really hard off the field as well and the girls have really embraced that.”
They face a Burleigh Bears team who have won the past four grand finals and have set the standard in the region for years, following the path of dominance that was originally the domain of the Souths Logan Magpies.
Roy Leoni – who coached the Bears in their first three seasons - has taken the reins for the finals series with regular coach Tahnee Norris overseas for work.
He said returning to the fold has been an enjoyable experience personally and that despite the group’s continued success, they could still enjoy and embrace the occasion without taking it for granted.
“We’ve obviously got a fair few girls who have had experience, but we’ve got a lot of girls that are new to the club and new to grand final experiences as well,” Leoni said.
“Not everybody gets to play in grand finals.
"We’re lucky that we’ve been able to play in five now, but not many people get to play in one. It’s pretty special for a lot of the girls.”
With a plethora of new faces playing alongside the established veterans, Burleigh warmed into the season and have saved their best for last, winning their past five games.
The Bears had to survive a brutal 14-6 semi-final win over Easts Tigers last week and did so thanks in large part to the abundance of big game experience in their ranks.
Four current State of Origin players will run out for Burleigh on Saturday as well as Jillaroo Zahara Temara who has returned from injury in the back end of the year.
“Those girls probably don’t even realise how much influence they actually do have on the young girls and how much they look up to them,” Leoni said.
“Them leading the way makes it easier for the young girls to follow along … I think we’ve got a good mix this year.”
* Main image courtesy of the Burleigh Bears
SEQ Women’s Division 1 grand final: West Brisbane Panthers v Burleigh Bears
When: Saturday, August 3 – 2.15pm
Where: Emerson Park, home of the Valleys Diehards
Curtain raiser: Division 3 Green preliminary final – Redlands and North Lakes at 12.30pm
Cost of entry: $5 / Under 16 – free
SEQ Division 1 grand final livestream: QRL.com.au and QRL Facebook
West Brisbane Panthers v Burleigh Bears team lists
West Brisbane Panthers
1. Kazzia Lammon 2. Lilly Green 3. Bridget Smith 4. Amy Turner 5. Gemma Schnaubelt 6. Bo De La Cruz 7. Lana Sheedy 8. Asipau Mafi 9. Michaela Peck 10. Kristine Vaalepu 11. Caitlyn Valeni 12. Kate Haren 13. Brianna Clark 14. Lavinia Gould 15. Cobie-Jane Morgan 16. Lauretta Leao-Seve 17. Jessica Somerville 18. Rakee Tagaloa 19. Shen'e Clemments
Coach: Craig Green
1. Chante Temara 2. Keri-Jade Robertson 3. Sasha Mahuika 4. Amber Pilley 5. Eseta Fangaloka 6. Zahara Temara 7. Tallisha Harden 8. Jane Parsons 9. Kadison-Tyra Robertson 10. Jasmin Kemp (c) 11. Tazmin Gray 12. Laken Paitai 13. Chelsea Lenarduzzi 14. Akayla McQuire 15. Selena Tranter 16. Gabrielle Senft 17. Cristina Song-Puche 18. Ngaupoko Marsters (updated August 1)
Coach: Roy Leoni