Cellar dwellers in 2020, the Dragons are now just one win away from the NRLW title after the brilliance of Kezie Apps and Emma Tonegato, as well as a stout defence, saw off the Titans.
St George-Illawarra won their NRLW semi-final against competition newbies Gold Coast Titans on Sunday to make it back to the promised land for the first time since 2019.
Rookie coach Jamie Soward turning the 2020 wooden spooners into grand finalists, who overcame a slow start to prevail at the hallowed Leichhardt Oval in front of 1734 fans.
A late Titans’ surge, with two tries in the final five minutes, closed the gap to six, but despite the unexpected nerves, the Dragons progressed 24-18.
Stream every game of every round of the 2022 NRL Telstra Premiership Season Live & Ad-Break Free In Play on Kayo. New to Kayo? Try 14-Days Free Now >
After challenging reigning champions Brisbane Broncos for top spot all season, the Dragons confirmed the top two billing by booking their spot in the decider next Sunday, at Redcliffe.
Under bright, sunny skies, 40-year-old veteran and 20-Test Jillaroos great Stephanie Hancock stormed over the line to post the opening points, showing some fleet of foot that belied her age, followed by her second in the final minute to keep the light flickering.
With captain Kezie Apps, stand out fullback Emma Tonegato flicked the switch midway through the first half, both exceeding 100 run metres.
Tonegato’s fourth try of the season gave the second-placed Dragons the halftime lead.
Jaime Chapman’s showed no signs of last week’s head knock by scoring the victors’ third, and in concert with her side’s defiant defence, the goalkicking of halfback Rachael Pearson ensured the scores did not get closer than they need be, kicking three from four.
PELITE LATE INCLUSION TO NO AVAIL
Australian Olympic gold medallist and superstar back Evania Pelite was a late inclusion in the centres for the Titans after an ankle injury cast real doubt over her involvement during the week.
The 26-year-old former Rugby Sevens player had played most of the season at fullback but was shifted to the centres and showed no signs of being hampered early with a last ditch try-saving tackle on winger Teagan Berry.
But the Dragons’ relentless charge made the effort irrelevant. Fellow Rio 2016 Sevens gold medallist, opposing No. 1 Tonegato, coming out on top.
SOWARD MAKES GF IN ROOKIE SEASON
A former NRL half and 2010 premiership winner, Jamie Soward signed as the Dragons’ NRLW coach in October 2021 and has taken his side, who were winless in 2020, to the deciding match.
Enduring what he described as ‘torture’ in the week leading up to the game, Soward would have been delighted to see his team maintain the defence he has emphasised all season.
Soward played 215 games for the Roosters, Dragons and Penrith during his distinguished NRL career under premiership winning coaches Ricky Stuart, Wayne Bennett and Ivan Cleary. After next Sunday, he may be able to add his name to that list.
FAREWELL FOR HANCOCK, PERHAPS?
When she opened the scoring, it appeared that NRLW great Steph Hancock may be set for a fairytale farewell in a grand final.
Hancock came out of retirement of be one of Gold Coast’s marquee signings in their inaugural season, starting almost all games after suggesting at the start of the season she would be filling mostly a bench role.
Passing a HIA, she returned to the field to finish with the same spirit she was demonstrated throughout her decorated career.
Broncos up the ante in bid for four-peat
– Chris Honnery
Broncos fullback Tamika Upton has been described as being “in a league of her own” as the Rockhampton rocket returns to the side this weekend in a huge boost to Brisbane’s premiership chances.
The 25-year-old has been forced to sit out the past two games because of injury and then Covid as Brisbane went on to claim the NRLW minor premiership and book a semi-finals spot against the Roosters at Leichhardt Oval on Sunday.
Upton lit the competition alight in the early rounds of the season with her blistering pace and support play before a head knock with Dragons centre Keele Browne in round 3 and then a positive Covid result ruled her out for the rest of the regular season.
The Brisbane No.1 admitted it had been tough to watch her teammates while she sat in isolation – or from the sideline – but it gave her a fresh perspective on the game and it’s set to give her a big advantage over the Roosters on Sunday.
“I learnt a lot watching from the sideline so I took that as a positive,” Upton said.
“I realised the area and the spacing on the field. You don’t really see that while you’re out there because you get a bit of tunnel vision.
“I watched that Titans game from the coaches’ box so you can see the whole field.
“That was a really good experience.”
SCROLL DOWN FOR NRLW SEMI-FINAL TEAM LISTS
Upton’s return is set to be a huge boost for the Broncos in Sunday’s semi-final, with Brisbane enforcer Millie Boyle describing the talented fullback as being in a league of her own.
“I definitely think Tamika is in a league of her own,” Boyle said.
“She’s set the standard for fullbacks playing the game, not just in the women’s game.
“It comes so natural to her in the way she organises the defensive line and chimes in when she’s needed.
“She has this ability to pop up in the middle for a support play.
“Cover tackles, speed, everything, she just ticks so many boxes.
“As good as she is, I think she’s still very underrated for what she actually does for the team and our confidence.
“She’s a big boost to have back this week.”
The Broncos also welcome back premiership-winning outside back Julia Robinson on Sunday after she broke her cheekbone in round 1.
Despite the losses of Upton and Robinson, the Broncos have been able to cover their spots in a clear indication of the strength of their playing roster depth.
“Our depth is great and we’ve had a few debutants this season,” Upton said.
“The experienced people like Amy Turner and Ali Brigginshaw helps to bring through these younger ones and they just step into the Broncos jersey and do a job.
“I’ve been really impressed.
“There’s a lot of talent out there and with expansion, we’ll no doubt see a lot more.”
Soward puts steel in Dragons
Jamie Soward knows a thing or two about being defensive.
Which is why it should be no surprise that St George Illawarra are banking on their reputation as the best defensive team in the NRLW to drive them to a breakthrough premiership.
The Dragons will be out to book a spot in next week’s grand final in Redcliffe when they face newcomers Gold Coast in the first of Sunday’s semi-final double-header in Leichhardt.
Soward’s side were denied the minor premiership by points differential, however they can still lay claim to being the best defensive team after conceding just 48 points in their five games.
And centre Jaime Chapman credits the premiership-winning coach.
“We have such a strong forward pack. And while our girls are little, we’re definitely strong,” Chapman said. “Everything we’ve been working towards has come our way during the game.
“Sowie doesn’t hold back on us with contact at training. So I think that’s helped us a lot within the games and our experiences as well.”
The Dragons will have to be at their miserly best to deny the Titans what would be a fairytale shot at premiership glory in their inaugural season.
Gold Coast pushed St George Illawarra all the way in their round-one clash off the back of an inspirational display from star fullback Evania Pelite.
The 2016 Rugby Sevens gold medallist was near unstoppable that day, recording a game-high 162 runs as the Titans fought back from a 14-0 deficit to get back within two.
Pelite missed last week’s final-round win over Newcastle with an ankle injury, and remains in some doubt to take the field at Leichhardt Oval after being named on an extended bench.
“She’s such a strong player and she’s one of our targets,” Chapman said.
“Having her out of the game would be a win for us. But if she was to play, we all trust each other to get straight on her and tackle her one-on-one.”
NRLW SEMI-FINALS – THE KEY MATCH-UPS
DRAGONS and TITANS
Kezie Apps v Steph Hancock
Two of the most experienced forwards in the women’s game are continuing to dominate the competition, so expect fireworks when they come together. Apps has averaged 11 carries for close to 100m across her three games this season while Hancock has barnstormed her way to two crucial tries in two separate matches.
Emma Tonegato v Jetaya Faifua
Olympic gold medallist Tonegato has been one of the standouts of the NRLW season so far. Her blistering speed and tackle busting ability has terrorised opposition defensive lines. Youngster Jetaya Faifua has been named in the No.1 jersey for the injured Evania Pelite – who has been named on the extended bench – and possesses scintillating speed to rival Tonegato’s. Pelite was the star in the first meeting between these two sides.
BRONCOS and ROOSTERS
Tamika Upton v Corban Baxter
The two State of Origin representatives will be key for their respective sides on Sunday. Upton’s speed and support play is incredibly tough to stop while Baxter’s leadership and experience can help guide the Roosters to victory.
Shenae Ciesiolka v Jessica Sergis
Ciesolka has proved to be one of the most damaging centres in the game this year, with four tries and four try assists to her name. For the Roosters, star recruit Sergis has shown glimpses of just how dangerous she can be and being a big game player, expect her to step it up a notch against the Broncos.
SEMI-FINAL TEAM LISTS
DRAGONS v TITANS
Sunday, 12.00pm, Leichhardt Oval
1. Emma Tonegato, 2. Teagan Berry, 3. Jaime Chapman, 4. Paige McGregor, 5. Madison Bartlett, 6. Taliah Fuimaono, 7. Rachael Pearson, 8. Elsie Albert, 9. Keeley Davis, 10. Kezie Apps, 11. Talei Holmes, 12. Shaylee Bent, 13. Holli Wheeler
Bench: 14. Quincy Dodd, 15. Kody House, 16. Tegan Dymock, 17. Janelle Williams
Reserves: 18. Renee Targett, 19. Keele Browne, 20. Shellie Long, 21. Aliti Namoce-Sagano, 22. Alexandra Sulusi, 23. Matilda Power, 24. Chantel Tugaga
1. Jetaya Faifua, 2. Karina Brown, 3. Jasmine Peters, 4. Shaniah Power, 5. Hailee-Jay Maunsell, 6. Grace Griffin, 7. Kimiora Breayley-Nati, 8. Brianna Clark, 9. Brittany Breayley-Nati, 10. Stephanie Hancock, 11. Tiana Raftstrand-Smith, 12. Tazmin Gray, 13. Destiny Brill
Bench: 14. Georgia Hale, 15. Jessika Elliston, 16. Laikha Clarke, 19. April Ngatupuna
Reserves: 18. Cobie-Jane Morgan, 20. Karli Hansen, 21. Zara Canfield, 22. Evania Pelite, 23. Lauren Dam, 24. Lauren Moss
BRONCOS v ROOSTERS
Sunday, 1.45pm, Leichhardt Oval
1. Tamika Upton, 2. Julia Robinson, 3. Amy Turner, 4. Shenae Ciesiolka, 5. Emily Bass, 6. Tarryn Aiken, 7. Ali Brigginshaw, 8. Millie Boyle, 9. Lauren Brown, 10. Chelsea Lenarduzzi, 11. Kaitlyn Phillips, 12. Amber Hall, 13. Lavinia Gould
Bench: 14. Hayley Maddick, 15. Tallisha Harden, 16. Roxette Murdoch, 17. Sara Sautia
Reserves: 18. Jada Ferguson, 19. Hagiga Mosby, 20. China Polata, 21. Toni Hunt, 22. Jessikah Reeves, 24. Lesa Kaleti Mata’afa
1. Corban Baxter, 2. Leianne Tufuga, 3. Jessica Sergis, 4. Isabelle Kelly, 5. Brydie Parker, 6. Zhara Temara, 7. Raecene McGregor, 8. Sarah Togatuki, 9. Olivia Higgins, 10. Mya Hill-Moana, 11. Yasmin Meakes, 12. Olivia Kernick, 13. Hannah Southwell
Bench: 14. Jocelyn Kelleher, 15. Keilee Joseph, 16. Tayla Predebon, 17. Simone Karpani
Reserves: 18. Joeli Morris, 19. Kalosipani Hopoate, 20. Lauretta Leao-Seve, 21. Otesa Pule, 22. Shawden Burton, 23. Taylor-Adeline Mapusua, 24. Taneka Todhunter
Originally published as NRLW 2022: Dragons to face Roosters in decider after edging out fast-finishing Titans