Watching Steph Hancock lead the Jillaroos to glory at the 2017 World Cup helped inspire PNG Orchids captain Elsie Albert to play rugby league and now the pair are set to embark on a 1,000km road trip together to join St George Illawarra for the upcoming NRLW season.
Albert, Hancock and Jillaroos team-mate Isabelle Kelly, tri-international Mahalia Murphy and fellow Wallaroos and rugby sevens representative Georgia Page are among the new faces in the Dragons squad, while inaugural captain Sam Bremner returns after taking last year off to give birth to her son, Reef.
The 22-strong squad will assemble for the first time on Monday ahead of next weekend’s opening round, with Albert and Hancock driving from Brisbane on Sunday because of a ban on Telstra Women’s Premiership players catching commercial flights under the NRL’s bio-security rules.
Albert is the first player from the PNG domestic competitiom to be signed by an NRLW club and she moved to Brisbane this year with the aim of earning a contract after last season captaining the Orchids to an historic Test defeat of England in Port Moresby.
After joining Souths Logan Magpies due to the presence of Australian-based Orchids stars Amelia Kuk, Therese Aiton and Shae De La Cruz, Albert got the opportunity to play alongside Hancock and she turned down other NRLW approaches to continue their front-row partnership in Wollongong.
“I did have a few decisions to make but I chose the Dragons because Steph also wanted to go there,” Albert told NRL.com.
“She is a role model. To me she is one of the best props in the game and I look up to her. I am just trying to imitate everything she does - her hard runs and tackles.
“The protocol is that we can’t fly so we are going by road on Sunday and we will be there by Monday. I am looking forward to meeting all the girls. The Dragons have a good team there and I just want to be a part of that.
“It has been a goal of mine to get into the NRLW so it means a lot to me after coming all this way and leaving my family back home to get this opportunity. It is a dream come true for me.”
The 24-year-old only begun playing league in 2018 after watching the Orchids make their debut at the 2017 World Cup, in which Hancock, Ruan Sims and Renae Kunst co-captained Australia.
She had been forced to give away boxing due to a lack of heavyweight female opponents in Papua New Guinea.
Match Highlights: PNG Orchids v England
“The World Cup was the first time I had realised there was a women’s team in Papua New Guinea. I never knew that girls played,” Albert said. “I just loved the physicality, that is what drew me to the game.
“In 2018 when I attended university I started to play. To then be given the honour of captaining the team was such an honour for me.”
Albert said she had watched St George Illawarra’s 2019 NRWL campaign, in which they made the grand final, and enjoyed the style the team played with the likes of Jess Sergis, Shakaih Tungai, Tiana Penitani, Maddie Studdon and Keeley Davis in the backline and Kezie Apps leading the forwards.
“I just hope I can bring some mongrel in defence,” she said. “I just need to be me on the field and I think I should be able to provide a good platform for the backs to move freely.”
Dragons coach Daniel Lacey said Albert was an “out-and-out trailblazer for women's sport in Papua New Guinea”.
The St George Illawarra squad includes 10 members of last year’s grand final team, while Kelly and Bremner played for the Dragons at February’s NRL Nines in Perth.
"It was an absolute privilege to include Isabelle in our Nines team in February so to see her join the club for the true season is brilliant," Lacey said.
"She's still young, but brings plenty of experience. It provides us balance on both sides [of the field] and helps foster further big game experience into our squad.
"Everybody already knows what Steph will bring to the Dragons. I'm looking forward to seeing her influence on the younger squad members as they transition to that semi-professional environment.
"Steph has an aura about her, both as a player and also in demonstrating a winning culture. Let's not forget that she's still playing good football and still has plenty to offer.
"Sammy has unfinished business. She only played our first ever game before she was ruled out with injury. She's worked really hard to get back to this point and I can't wait to see her go around.”
Bremner and Apps have been appointed co-captains.
- Elsie Albert
- Kezie Apps
- Shaylee Bent
- Teagan Berry
- Sam Bremner
- Jaime Chapman
- Keeley Davis
- Jade Etherden
- Aaliyah Fasavalu-Fa'amausili
- Steph Hancock
- Talei Holmes
- Rikeya Horne
- Ellie Johnston
- Isabelle Kelly
- Mahalia Murphy
- Georgia Page
- Christine Pauli
- Tiana Penitani
- Jessica Sergis
- Maddie Studdon
- Shakiah Tungai
- Maddison Weatherall