An enormous cheer goes up when Jaimie Chapman's name is read out over the loud speaker at Moreton Daily Stadium. There's a bigger one when Kezie Apps gets her shout out. It quickly becomes apparent the cheers aren't just reserved for these two superstars, as the consistent din of noise continues throughout the roll call of both the Dragons and Roosters.
There's a little girl sitting on the sideline watching the end of the Roosters warmups. She has a team jersey, with No.3 and Sergis emblazoned on the back. She's not alone. These players are becoming very familiar to rugby league punters, owing to far more than just their skill sets. They represent every little girl entering the ground and seated in the stands, and every little boy sitting alongside them. They play for every woman who loves the game of rugby league, and every man as well. Lifelong supporters and newcomers alike are here for the footy, and they are ready for a show.
St George Illawarra's rookie coach, former Dragons and Roosters champion Jamie Soward, couldn't have put it any better when he said:
"I don't coach women. I coach Rugby League Players."
The women's game is- finally- mainstream, and these ambassadors are leading it into a new stratosphere, on the day of the NRLW's maiden standalone Grand Final.
There is approximately six thousand at the ground in the half hour before kickoff, as the countdown to this rugby league proxy war continues. There is a smattering of Broncos jerseys in the crowd- many expected Ali Brigginshaw's champions to be here again,
The climax of NRLW 2021, part one, being played in April 2022, has captured the imagination on the Redfcliffe Peninsular.
Flames erupt and music blares as Corban Baxter leads the Roosters out at approximately 1.27pm. The crowd has swelled, to 7,855 to be precise, and the roars are even more prominent. Shouts of recognition come from kids seated near the Media zone. They recognise Sergis, they recognise Raecene McGregor- and they're excited to see them in the flesh.
Then Kepps leads the Dragons out, and it's pandemonium. The Saints are very much marching in, and according to a young fan in a Dragons cap, "Keely Davis is going to be the winner."
Less than two minutes has elapsed when newly crowned Dally M medalist Emma Tonegato features in a left edge raid. Madison Bartlett strolls over for the Dragons, stealing the mantle as the NRLW's most prolific try scorer in the process. Halfback Rachel Pearson misses the kick from the corner, to the delight of a group of young Roosters fans in the stands behind her. Two points missed, but their team has work to do. The Dragons are playing an expansive brand, and proving their stature as favorites. The Roosters, meanwhile, aren't here by accident, having ended the seemingly unending title run of the Broncos a week prior.
Perhaps spurred to prove her side belongs on the stage, Baxter takes a strong kick return, legs charging on despite the attention of three defenders. The Roosters earn a slow peel penalty and the early momentum shifts. Blink, and Brydie Parker is launching herself at the left hand corner post. She gets the ball down in a gravity defying fashion, only to be denied on review.
It's game on. The Dragons roar back down their end and are repelled. No shortage of feeling here- a high shot on Sergis earns the Roosters another penalty. They march back downfield, Pearson launches a bomb and only desperate Dragons defence denies an equaliser.
The Roosters are gifted more good ball by a Tonegato error. They continue to push, with depth and options on both sides of the ball. Sergis gets an arm free, the offload finds Leianne Tufuga on the right touchline. She's barrelled into touch- just.
Less than a quarter of the game has elapsed.
The Roosters are matching zesty attack, with stinging defence. Olivia Kernick and Olivia Higgins combine for a highlight reel jam tackle soon after. Tonegato is hammered by a determined kick chase. The Dragons are feeling the impact of this concerted blitz, and Taliah Fuimaono gets it wrong with an attempt to square up soon- felling Brydie Parker with a dangerous shot. She goes to the bin, Parker leaves the field. 20 year old Joeli Morris enters proceedings as 18th player for the Roosters. It's her NRLW debut.
The Roosters are now on an attacking assault. Sergis catches a bomb and grapples desperately for the line. Centre partner Isabelle Kelly is just as threatening with ball in hand, and making significant yards every carry. Interchange Jocelyn Kelleher steps inside a few tired defenders and makes a charge at the line shortly after. Denied again. The Dragons might have fallen somewhat out of sync, but they are digging very deep.
A venture up their end is thwarted when a second straight McGregor grubber finds the hands of an opponent. Blink- back to the other end. Sergis is powering over in the right hand corner. The video referee can't see the ball touch the turf, and the chooks are denied again.
Somehow it's still 4-0. The Dragons have withstood a sustained onslaught from a Roosters side seemingly unperturbed by the early afternoon Brisbane heat. The crowd roars when Tonegato makes a break out of her own end. Rachel Pearson hits a 40/30. The Dragons are attacking again. Raecene McGregor pulls off a try-saver on sister Page, inches from the line.
Three minutes to the break and the Saints are throwing everything at the Roosters. There's nothing doing though, until Keely Davis puts in a grubber. Easy fodder for Baxter to clean up until it takes a deflection and changes course. Davis regathers and scores, 8-0.
Hold on. Something not quite right with the replay. The ball is deemed to have been propelled forward in the buildup. No Try. The Roosters defence continues to impress, prompting McGregor to look for a 5-0 advantage with a drop goal on half time. It misses. And thus ends a breathtaking half of rugby league.
A reminder of the true power of the game comes with the halftime spectacle. Shenanigans first, as two punters race up and down the field in giant rubber mouse wheels, before a collection of young local dancers perform a routine to a performance of Titans star Karina Brown's debut single- 'She's got confidence.'
Here's a taste of the opening verse:
"Young boys in line.
Now is her time.
She takes the pen.
A hero like the men."
Across Moreton Daily, young girls are standing in their seats and dancing. Young boys too.
We're soon back in the action, and it's the Dragons again with the early attack. They're denied on the right, and held up on the left. Sergis concedes a penalty for the cause, the defence holds.
Amid chants of "Dragons, Dragons, Dragons," the Roosters surge back downfield, mirroring the momentum shift of the first half. They go one better this time, as Yasmin Meakes crashes over- a fitting reward for more than 40 minutes of pressure. Temara misses the kick, and it's even Steven's at Moreton Daily.
Roosters prop Sarah Togatuki is met with a hit that reverberates through the Western grandstand on her kick return. The Dragons are clearly not worried about the equalizer, coming as it did on the back of two missed scoring opportunities of their own.
Blink, and Isabelle Kelly is taking another massive charge. The Chooks are in the Dragons half again, and spreading it left. Play stops, Keely Davis has gone down on the right. She leaves the field, her game turning influence departing with her. The Dragons have work to do.
Sergis concedes a penalty and the Dragons are soon in the Roosters red zone. The first raid goes over the right edge touchline, the second ends up in the hands of Roosters interchange Tayla Prebedon. A penalty is blown and play stops. The other McGregor sister, Dragons centre Page, has gone down clutching her right arm. Just over 16 minutes on the clock, and more than a few players are clutching at their sides. McGregor departs to polite applause.
Blink. Kelly takes a one armed offload from Temara, and makes her fourth line break of the day. This time, it delivers the ultimate reward, as she steps off the left and careens for the line. 8-4. Kelly has run for 142 metres leading to this point, each one of them quality. Temara converts, and it's 10-4.
Forgive the oft repeated cliche here, but the Dragons ARE breathing fire in the aftermath. No time for surprise, only metres, and a machine-like upfield charge is only halted by an injury to Raecene McGregor. She shakes it off, and the assault continues. The Roosters repel it, and McGregor's soon putting a raking kick into the ingoal at the other end.
Just under seven minutes left. Holly Wheeler puts a crossfield kick in for winger Tegan Berry. Berry takes it, and kicks again, straight into the arms of Kelly. Still plenty of time left, but the Roosters seem to have all the answers.
Now there's a "Roosters, Roosters, Roosters" chant booming across the ground. Keele Brown is on for the Dragons and takes a stirring charge into the teeth of the defence. She drops the ball. The chant grows louder.
Blink. Togatuki makes one of the great Grand Final carries, barging her way through the midfield and setting up another raid. Olivia Higgins wrestles through some exhausted defence and slams the ball down next to the posts. Conversion successful. 16-4.
Isabelle Kelly gets a standing ovation as she returns to her position, with one young fan proffering a football to be signed. Kelly signals her intention to oblige post match. Then she raises her arms in triumph, and the sea of colours- Dragons, Roosters and otherwise- rises as one.
The clock ticks down and the Roosters chant ignites once more. Cheers drown out the full time siren, the Roosters bench and staff charge onto the ground. Dragons' players- gallant in defeat, exchange hugs and congratulations. A local junior girls team from Gympie walks onto the pitch to take part in the presentation ceremony.
Sunday, April 10 at Moreton Daily Stadium on the Redcliffe Peninsula. It's been a story of imagination, courage and skill. A story of brutality, persistence and exhilaration.
The record books will reflect on the Roosters, and their ascension to the top, the first team other than Brisbane to win the NRLW, and earning the accolade through an equal part audacious and relentless brand of football. Let's hope history is kind to the Dragons also; a team who came together under a rookie coach and powered their way to the big dance with a world class combination of creativity and physicality. Their accomplishments, and the spirit they bring to the big stage, is showcased by the grace in which they accept defeat on the day.
"You guys should be so happy. You made history, and you should be proud," says Sarah Togatuki, as she accepts her medal for best on ground, having churned out 161 running metres from 13 inspired charges. Respect is everywhere, as are heroes, as stats are tallied. Tonegato with 206 metres in a losing side, Isabelle Kelly with 170. It takes a while for those closest to the action to catch their breath.
"It'll burn for a while.. But I'm proud of the girls that have brought in and set the standard and the culture of what it takes to be a Dragon now," Jamie Soward says post match.
"I was a little bit overwhelmed by how the girls played out there," says Roosters coach John Strange. "Similar to last week... Down 4-0 at half time. Obviously there was belief."
Strange leads his players on to get their medals, each one handed out by a starry-eyed Gympie junior, standing alongside their heroes on a stage they now know with great certainty that they could one day occupy.
"I love you girls so much. We've been through so much this year, but this is only just beginning," Corban Baxter says, shortly before hoisting the trophy.
It's a fitting reward for an epic decider, and a neat present on her 28th birthday. Flames erupt, the classic 'red, white and bluesters' theme blasts across the ground. The moral of the story: Rugby league wins.
Bring on part two.