The last time the Dragons made a grand finale it was just a little short of humiliating.
This was back in 2019, just the second season of NRLW, and St George Illawarra were taking on the might of Brisbane. Their chins were up and their hearts were full, but against the Broncos that was never really going to be enough.
“They blew us off the park, the game was over in 15 minutes. They completely set that tempo and we were playing catch-up for the rest of the game,” remembers Dragons veteran Holli Wheeler.
In the end, the 30-6 loss summed up much of St George Illawarra’s experience in the NRLW. They were talented, but rarely fulfilled those talents. Before this season, the 24-point drubbing was the third-largest loss in NRLW history, with Dragons defeats also taking out the top two.
With a player exodus from 2020’s wooden spoon campaign and a rookie coach taking over in Jamie Soward, the tip for the Dragons for this season was supposed to be clear.
“A lot of the media people around the game wrote us off quite early. They spoke about the players we lost and we were probably close to wooden spoon favourites, with the caliber of players we lost,” said Wheeler.
“Nobody really spoke about the players we were bringing in, or the talent we were unearthing. The more we got together, the hunger the younger girls had, it got us older girls excited.”
Wheeler is one of just four players remaining from the 2019 side. Along with Kezie Apps, Keeley Davis and Shaylee Bent, she’s seen the Dragons rise from the ashes and transform from a team that got belted to a team that does the belting, who have gone from sleepless nights wondering why the hell it wasn’t all working to be up the front, in the spotlight, with everything they ever wanted right in front of them and there for the taking.
Apps has had a career rejuvenation since moving from second row to prop. Papua New Guinea international Elsie Albert has become one of the game’s premiere forwards. Fullback Emma Tonegato could well win the Karyn Murphy medal as player of the year and her closest competition is likely to be Davis. Halfback Rachael Pearson is the class rookie of the season. There are stars all over the place, and they’re all in form.
This time, despite the Roosters giant-killing victory over Brisbane last week, the Dragons are the hot favourites, they are the ones expected to brush the challengers aside, just as the Broncos did to them on that day two and a half years ago.
It’s a significance not lost on Wheeler, who is one of the club’s last remaining foundation players along with Davis and Apps. The Dragons have won plenty of premierships in the past, and their men’s and women’s teams may well win plenty in the future. But something can only be done for the first time once.
“Over at Kogarah, at the leagues club, they’ve started up a Dragons museum. We went down there the other day, and we got to focus on the rich history of the club, all these important milestones and premierships and there’s a spot there for the first time the girls win the premiership,” Wheeler said.
“This is our chance. This is our shot. We want to create that. We haven’t spoken too much about that side of stuff, we tried to keep it footy focused, but we have mentioned it and how much it would mean to this proud club.
“To be able to go down in history as a part of that team, it would mean the world to us. It would be an opportunity to make this proud club even prouder, and that means everything to me and Kez and Keels, who have been here since the start.
“The club is like a family, they gave me a chance in the first season when I didn’t think anyone would, they stuck by me through the injuries and I’d love to be able to repay that.”
The Dragons know it won’t be easy. The Roosters are also playing for their first premiership and their own place in history, and they’ll be fueled by a sense of destiny after pulling off the biggest win in the competition’s history last week. They are the final step which the Dragons must either fall on or overleap, for in their way they lie.
But St George Illawarra believe they still have extra gears to find. The decider will be their seventh game of the season – from 2018 to 2020 they played ten matches total – and they’ve had enough time to both improve as individuals and come closer together as a team.
After what they’ve achieved this year, it’s a safe bet that the Dragons will keep their core group together for the second NRLW season of 2022 in August.
But there will always be a team change or two. Those Dragons won’t be the exact same as these Dragons and these Dragons will either make history or they won’t, but they’ll do it together, whatever happens.
“We spoke about how this might never come around for some of us again,” Wheeler said.
“We’ll never all be together like this again, and we have to make the most of it. That’s on the 24 players, the coaching staff, and we have this feeling, this buzz around the team, and it’s a special feeling, it’s belief, I can’t really put it into words.
“Win or lose, we’ll be sad this season is over and we can’t train together next week.”