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Rebuilt Red V on cusp of NRLW premiership

When St George Illawarra finished the 2020 NRLW season last without a win to their name there would have been few punters brave enough to back them in to win the proceeding competition.

Even more so when you consider they had lost Jess Sergis, Tiana Penitani and Maddie Studdon as part of the NRL’s bid to equalise talent in the expanded six-team competition.

Not helping matters was the fact that as part of the Dragons’ marquee player allocations they were lumped with two hookers – Keeley Davis and Quincy Dodd.

But fast forward to April 2022 and the Dragons are on the cusp of their first piece of silverware in the women’s game, heading into Sunday’s grand final at Redcliffe against the Sydney Roosters.

It’s an impressive achievement for first-year coach Jamie Soward considering this roster was put together by his predecessor, Matt Head and the Dragons pathways manager Steve Nielsen over a year ago.

“Our marquee requests didn’t do a lot for us but we worked with what we were given,” Nielsen told AAP.

“We got Kezie Apps, Holli Wheeler and Shaylee Bent and we also ended up with Quincey and Keeley.”

The Dragons examined what Melbourne had done in the men’s game with the double hooker tandem of Harry Grant and Brandon Smith.

Their best recruits weren’t done by grand design, but rather fell into their lap.

Fullback Emma Tonegato was named as the joint Dally M player of the year earlier this week, but only returned to the game from rugby sevens by chance.

“Her manager just called and asked us a few questions like where we were training,” said Nielsen. “She lives and works in Wollongong and once we talked it through we were really keen to get her on board.”

The re-signing of no-nonsense Papua New Guinea international Elsie Albert was another shrewd move.

Albert has become a star of the competition – just second behind Brisbane’s Millie Boyle for running metres among forwards – and is likely to attract interest from rival clubs.

“She was very shy initially but now she’s really confident and speaks up a lot more,” Nielsen said.

“She’s a great leader in her actions and she’s in great shape. It’s massive for her because she has a huge following back home in PNG.”

They say a team without a halfback is like a car without a driver and after losing NSW Origin No. 7 Studdon to Parramatta, the Dragons looked to be struggling to find someone to steer them around.

At 28, you might have been forgiven for thinking Rachael Pearson would be a stop-gap.

But the playmaker, who hails from Hay in the NSW Riverina, has been a standout.

“Kezie kept telling us about her because she’d come down here to play at Helensburgh,” Nielsen said.

“She didn’t have the NRLW experience but she’s more than proven her worth.”

Her performance will be critical if the Dragons are to win on Sunday and claim the club’s first premiership since Soward was running around in the halves for the Red V in 2010.

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