How the Dragons went from great NRLW underachievers to the brink of the club’s first premiership

The last time the Dragons made a grand final, it was just a little humiliating.

It was 2019, just the second season of NRLW, and St George Illawarra took on the might of Brisbane. Their chins were up and their hearts were full, but against the Broncos, that was never quite going to be enough.

“They knocked us out of the park, the game was over in 15 minutes. They completely set that tempo and we played catch-up for the rest of the game,” Dragons veteran Holli Wheeler recalled.

Ultimately, the 30-6 defeat sums up much of St George Illawarra’s experience in the NRLW. They were talented, but rarely fulfilled those talents. Prior to this season, the 24-point thrashing was the third-biggest loss in NRLW history, with the Dragons’ losses also eliminating the top two.

With an exodus of players from the 2020 wooden spoons campaign and a rookie coach taking over from Jamie Soward, the tip for the Dragons for this season was supposed to be clear.

“A lot of media around the game wrote us off pretty early. They talked about the players we lost and we were probably close to the wooden spoon favorites, with the caliber of players we lost,” Wheeler said.

The Dragons were knocked out of the park in the 2019 NRLW Grand Finals. (Getty Images, Mark Metcalfe)

“No one was really talking about the players we brought in or the talent we unearthed. The more we got together, the hungrier the younger girls got, the more excited the older girls got.”

Wheeler is one of four remaining players on the 2019 squad. Along with Kezie Apps, Keeley Davis and Shaylee Bent, she saw the Dragons rise from the ashes and transform from a team that was belted to a team that made the belt, who spent sleepless nights wondering why the hell it wasn’t all working out being up 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 Guinean international Elsie Albert became one of the first strikers in the game. Full-back 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 classy rookie of the season. There are stars everywhere, and they are all in good shape.

This time, despite the Roosters’ giant win over Brisbane last week, the Dragons are the big favourites, they are the ones who should rule out the challengers, just like the Broncos did on this day two and a half years ago. .

An NRLW player runs the ball during a game
Wheeler is one of St George Illawarra’s oldest players. (Getty Images, Cameron Spencer )

It’s a meaning not lost on Wheeler, who is one of the club’s last founding players along with Davis and Apps. The Dragons have won many premierships in the past, and their men’s and women’s teams could well win a lot in the future. But something can only be done once for the first time.

“Over there in Kogarah, at the leagues club, they opened a Dragons museum. We went there the other day, and we had to focus on the rich history of the club, all those important milestones and premiers and there is a place there, for the first time, the girls win the premiership,” Wheeler said.

“It’s our chance. It’s our shot. We want to create that. We didn’t talk about that side of things too much, we tried to stay focused on the football, but we mentioned it and how much it would mean for this proud club.

“To be able to go down in history as part of this team would mean the world to us. It would be an opportunity to make this proud club even prouder, and that means everything to me, Kez and Keels, who have been here ever since. the beginning.

“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 my side despite the injuries and I wish I could 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 will be fueled by a sense of fate after picking up the biggest win in competition history last week. They are the last step Dragons must fall or jump on, as they lie in their own way.

But St George Illawarra thinks they still have more gears to find. The decisive game will be their seventh game of the season – from 2018 to 2020 they have played ten games in total – and they have had enough time to improve individually and grow closer as a team.

After what they’ve accomplished this year, it’s a safe bet that the Dragons will keep their hard core for the second NRLW season of 2022 in August.

But there will always be a team change or two. These dragons won’t be exactly the same as these dragons and these dragons will go down in history or they won’t, but they will together no matter what.

“We talked about how it might never happen again for some of us,” Wheeler said.

“We will never be all together like this again, and we have to make the most of it. It’s about the 24 players, the technical staff, and we have this feeling, this buzz around the team, and it’s a special feeling is belief, I can’t really put it into words.

“Win or lose, we will be sad this season is over and we won’t be able to train together next week.”