Jillaroos v NZ Ferns preview
This Sunday signals one of the biggest games in the history of women's rugby league with the Australia Jillaroos and New Zealand Kiwi Ferns set to play as a precursor to Australia and Samoa's Four Nations clash.
Set to kick off at 1.30pm at WIN Stadium, the game will be the first between the two combatants since Australia's World Cup win in July last year.
WATCH: Jillaroos v Kiwi Ferns live streamed on NRL.com from 12.30pm (AEDT).
With the Kiwi Ferns dominating the world stage of women's rugby league for the past 13 years, Australia's win was certainly groundbreaking and they now look to prove it was no fluke.
With one eye looking towards the future, Jillaroos coach Steve Folkes and Kiwi Ferns coach Rusty Matua have named a combined 16 debutants (six Jillaroos, 10 Kiwi Ferns) to run out for their first Test.
The rematch of the Women's Rugby League World Cup Final between Australia and New Zealand will be streamed live on NRL.com this Sunday from 1.30pm.
The importance of the game: Jillaroos lock Ruan Sims – the eldest sister to well-known NRL trio Ashton, Tariq and Korbin – has achieved plenty in her various sporting endeavours.
A rugby league and union World Cup winner, who has also recently dabbled in gridiron while working for Fire and Rescue NSW, Sims was lost for words when trying to describe the importance of Sunday's fixture.
"This is the first time ever that a women's game has been a curtain raiser to a Test match and for it to be Australia and New Zealand it's going to be such a good showing and a really good spectacle," Sims told NRL.com.
"I think people will really enjoy the skill level and the hard hits and everything that comes along with loving rugby league. It is such a good opportunity for the general public to realise that women play rugby league and we play it at a good standard. It's a really good platform for us to move forward."
Coach Folkes believes the importance of the game comes off the back of NRL CEO Dave Smith and the game's commitment to elevate the women’s game - the fastest growing segment of rugby league currently - to new levels.
"The fact we're playing the lead-up game to Australia and Samoa is fantastic," Folkes told NRL.com. "It's a really good platform to build on and the girls are all really appreciative of the opportunity."
Key Jillaroos players: With the Jillaroos featuring six new players in the team including centre Annette Brander, hooker Brittany Breayley, back-rowers and Canley Heights duo Simaima Taufa-Kauta and Vanessa Foliaki, the importance of halfback Maddie Studdon remains unrivalled by her fellow debutants.
At 19 years old, Studdon will lead the Jillaroos attack in what will be her first game of league since breaking her fibula earlier this year, though coach Folkes isn't too concerned about her lack of match fitness.
"I think she was given the all clear a week or two ago and the physio has been working on her pretty consistently just to make sure she's 100 per cent, so I guess we won't know [how she'll go] until we get out there but she looks reasonably good at training," Folkes said.
"I have only seen her play on DVD so far but she has obviously impressed a lot of people and she's only young so it is a good opportunity for her and there's enough experience around her to compensate her inexperience."
Studdon will be boosted by the experience of recently appointed captain and prop Steph Hancock, daughter of former Queensland Test prop Rohan, and fullback Sam Hammond who has previously been dubbed by pundits the "female Billy Slater" and a "standout" by Folkes.
Kiwi Ferns to keep an eye on: Kiwi Ferns captain Honey Hireme, dubbed 'Honey Bill Williams' due to her prowess in both union and league, will certainly cause plenty of headaches for the Jillaroos as the Ferns look to avenge their World Cup final loss.
Five-eighth Rona Peters, alongside sisters Kahurangi (on debut) and Hilda for the first time will spearhead the Kiwi Ferns' attack while fullback and current NZRL Women’s Player of the Year Sarina Fiso will prove a tough adversary against the wily Hammond.
The Folkes factor: Former New South Wales and Australian back-rower and former Bulldogs coach Folkes' experience could very well prove the difference this weekend. While Folkes admitted the offer to coach the Jillaroos "came out of the blue" he is nonetheless enjoying the experience.
Sims gave her new mentor a glowing appraisal.
"His knowledge and experience is incredible. He has a very calm and collected approach to coaching and it's a pleasure to play underneath him... because he has been a fantastic influence on the girls," Sims said.
"It's good to have someone who has experience and knowledge as a player as well as a coach to be interested in taking on this challenge."
Praise aside, Folkes is focused on doing a job against the Kiwi Ferns.
"With the limited preparation we have only focused on the areas that are really important and we're trying to be consistent and good at them for 80 minutes," Folkes says.
"I think if you had them for the same length of the time as a first grade team through all the pre-season and all that it would be very similar. At the moment because there has only been nine days of preparation... we can't be too expansive so we have to keep the focus narrow and go from there."
Why should you go see them? Sims had the best explanation: "I think if you want to come and have a great day of football then come along because it's going to be a really good standard and I think people will be surprised by the standard and the brand of football we play.
"It will be a really exciting experience for us to have a really big crowd out there as well. You might not know any of the players playing but if you come down early it will be a beautiful day, you can sit in the sun, have a couple of beers if you want and watch some good footy. You can't lose."
Moving forward: Announced in September, the Jillaroos and Kiwi Ferns are set to participate in a nine-on-nine, three game series at the 2015 Auckland Nines. Kiwi Ferns fullback Fiso, who was in attendance at the Auckland Nines launch, spoke of her excitement of participating.
"We don't have many regular international fixtures so it is going to bring a lot of interest to the game," Fiso said.
"It is something we are really, really looking forward to... and it is going to be an amazing atmosphere and the girls are going to be stoked when they hear the news."
Sims was optimistic of what the series may do for women's rugby league moving forward towards the 2017 World Cup.
"I think the Auckland Nines is going to do what Sevens did for rugby union," Sims said.
"I think it's going to bring it into the mainstream a little bit more and give it more exposure and to play it in between the boys game is another step forward."
The rematch of the Women's Rugby League World Cup Final between Australia and New Zealand will be streamed live on NRL.com this Sunday from 1:30pm.