JILLAROOS v KIWI FERNS
GIO Stadium, Canberra
5.30pm, May 5
Friday, May 5 has been circled and marked with a cross in my diary for several months.
The moment I found out that the Australian Jillaroos would be playing the Kiwi Ferns in Canberra as part of Representative Round I knew that I had to make the trip down to watch my favourite Australian sporting team.
One of my favourite sayings when it comes to women's sport is: "You can't be what you can't see". Growing up as a rugby league fan, I'm still embarrassed that it never crossed my mind to ask my dad where the women playing rugby league were, or to ask why I wasn't able to play rugby league, or why there weren't more women visibly part of the rugby league family.
I think that at an early age I assumed that rugby league was a game for the boys and was content watching my men in blue and gold take the field each week, without thinking about the bigger picture - the bigger picture, which of course, involved women.
As I grew older, I was suddenly exposed to women's rugby league and I was impressed not just by the quality of play, but also the dedication of these women to the sport that they played out of love. Women like Kezie Apps, Ruan Sims, Allana Ferguson and Sammy Bremner now demonstrate to the next generation of young women that if they want to play rugby league at an elite level, there is very little stopping them.
So who wins tonight?
It has already been a big start to the year for the Jillaroos after they won their first series over the Kiwi Ferns at the Auckland Nines this year in a three-game sweep. The Jillaroos should be able to take some confidence from this, although the 80-minute version of the game is a completely different prospect.
Jillaroos coach Brad Donald seems to have taken this into account with a couple of familiar faces returning to the squad on Friday night. Whilst the squad that won the Auckland Nines was geared towards speed, favouring players like Chelsea Baker, Karina Brown, Allana Ferguson and Sam Bremner, the squad for Friday night is more balanced and features both speed and power.
The Jillaroos' forward pack will be boosted by the inclusion of women like Rebecca Young, Elianna Walton and in particular, captain Ruan Sims who returns for this game from injury.
One notable omission from the squad is Dally M Female Player of the Year, Kezie Apps who is still recovering from a broken leg from the Auckland Nines. Fortunately for Kezie fans, she has travelled with the team and has taken on a coaching/player manager role in the lead-up to the game.
Jillaroos players to watch: All eyes will be on the new Jillaroos halves pairing of Zahara Temara and Simone Smith who look set to make their debut tonight against the Ferns replacing Ali Brigginshaw and Maddie Studdon.
Simone featured in the Women's All Star team this February that, for the first time, beat the Women's Indigenous All Stars team. Simone was also named player of the match and impressed many rugby league fans with her play-making skills and speed.
This skill is going to be key in defeating a Kiwi Ferns team that new coach Tony Benson has promised will feature plenty of attacking football, second-phase play and 'playing what's in front of them'.
Karina Brown is also a player I'll be watching. In the corresponding match in 2016 Karina managed to score two tries. These were Karina's first tries in the green and gold and I'm hoping she manages another double on Friday night.
Kiwis Ferns players to watch: Keep an eye out for Teuila Fotu-Moala. Everyone knows Kezie Apps is the best second-rower in the women's game, but in a game that the Ferns have promised will focus on second-phase play, this young woman will be key to the Ferns' attack. Any woman with the nickname 'Jukebox' (because she always produces the big hits) is someone that the Jillaroos will need to keep an eye on.
Georgia Hale is my favourite player in the Ferns because she is a naturally gifted footballer. Georgia has previously represented New Zealand in touch and tag and is a serious speedster. She's come to be a player that the Ferns heavily rely on to help them play to a structure, and with new coach Tony Benson having promised that the Ferns will be playing a new type of attacking footy in this game, expect Georgia to be a key part in making sure that they stick to the game plan.
Ladies who League predicts: There is plenty on the line in this game, with both teams wanting to make a statement heading into preparations for the Rugby League World Cup which begins in October this year.
This is the first time that the men's and women's World Cup tournaments will be played alongside each other and presents a real opportunity for women's rugby league to take another step forward.
The game on Friday night gives players from both teams the opportunity to show their relatively new coaches how they perform in the full 80-minute version of the game, and while the Jillaroos will be keen to continue the momentum established with their series win at the Nines, the Kiwi Ferns will be desperate to get back into the winner's circle.