Blues mates turn rivals in breakout game
Having shared in NSW Women's historic triumph over Queensland Women recently, close mates Allana Ferguson and Kezie Apps will on Saturday face off in another historic fixture – the nines clash between Ferguson's Sharks and Apps's Dragons.
Cronulla and St George Illawarra will break new ground with the fixture shortly after an announcement from the NSWRL that an under-18s girls nines competition will run alongside the boys' Harold Matthews and SG Ball competitions from 2017, with a senior women's nines competition hopefully in place by 2019.
Called the Tarsha Gale Nines, the competition is a big step on the way to full-time professionalism for the women's game and the two Jillaroos stars spoke to NRL.com about their excitement of both announcements.
Apps just wished the senior comp was closer than 2019.
"We've got a nines game this weekend happening; I'll be playing for the St George Dragons and a few of the girls here [at the announcement of the Tarsha Gale Nines also including Blues and Jillaroos skipper Ruan Sims] are playing for the Cronulla Sharks so that will be a good little stepping stone to showcase of what it can actually be for a competition, but it's very exciting," Apps said.
"2019 seems so far away – I'm 25 so I'll be what, 28, maybe getting at the end of my playing career. I'll definitely be one of the senior players. I just wish it could happen a lot sooner but it's exciting to see how far it's going," she added.
Ferguson described this weekend's fixture as a dream come true.
"I'm really excited. It's a childhood dream to be able to play for the Sharkies," Ferguson said.
"I used to think I'd be playing with the boys but the fact that I get to play with some of my best mates and the fact that the Sharks have created this opportunity for us – it's indescribable and we're really, really excited to actually be doing it."
Like Apps, Ferguson couldn't wait to see a structured senior competition introduced.
"I'm only 24 and we've been working on this nines game and creating the NRL competition in some form for a while now so the fact it's been put down on paper and they're working on it is really exciting," Ferguson said.
"We just can't wait for it to be developed so that it potentially becomes a little bit more full-time."
The full-time part is the key; to truly establish a competition that will draw a generation of younger players in the athletes need to be able to commit full-time to make the best out of their talents. Currently Ferguson is a teacher and Apps a personal trainer.
However there is certainly a bright side: Apps – player of the match in the recent interstate win and plenty of times previously for the Jillaroos – credits her recent form spike to her work environment.
"I recently started working at my local gym, United Fitness Studio, as a personal trainer," Apps said.
"Being in that environment and getting guidance off one of the guys who owns it, whose name's Shaun, has really helped me with my eating and training and preparation which has really helped with my injuries and recovery time.
"Being in that environment over the past few months, you can see it in my game. I was so shocked to get that [player of the match] award though because we all played so good."
And while they will be rivals on the field for a short time on Saturday, don't expect any ill will – the two are looking to go and get their celebratory tattoos in commemoration of the Blues' breakthrough win after the game, following in the footsteps of a couple of Blues teammates.
"Yeah, Kezie and I are going to get one, we're going to get our tattoos hopefully after the nines game on Saturday," Ferguson laughed.
"Yeah there's a few girls, me and 'Fergo' actually spoke about doing it [Wednesday after the announcement]," Apps laughed.
"But I think most of the girls are getting tattoos put somewhere. 'Mima' [Simaima Taufua] has got one on her foot."
It's a sign of just how much breaking that 17-year duck meant to the players; while the women's fixture doesn't yet garner the same publicity as the men's, picture Jarryd Hayne's tearful "it's been a long time" statement after breaking the Queensland men's eight-year reign in 2014 to get some idea of what it meant to break through after having never even seen your state triumph against the old foes.
"I'm still beaming, all of us girls are, we talk about it all the time just reliving the moment," Ferguson said.
"In terms of football career and highlights it's definitely up there for me. Anyone that has grown up playing footy in Australia would say that Origin is something else and it's great, we're still so stoked about it," Ferguson said.
"That was the best moment in my playing career," Apps had no hesitation in declaring, despite her many lofty achievements in green and gold.
"I think that feeling of beating Queensland for the first time is definitely the highest in my career. Even though it's 'just' state level it's that rivalry we have against each other," Apps said.
"Obviously you're brought up with it when you were younger buying into that culture so to beat them for the first time in 17 years, words can't describe the feeling that we had."
That breakthrough win should hopefully be the first of many more given the expanded pathways being introduced in the women's game by the NSWRL.
While both Apps and Ferguson are among the many female players who could have been lost to the game at the age of 12 due to a lack of pathways, they praised the development that will see female players be able to stay with the game.
"The fact that we had to stop playing and there wasn't really much of a pathway was quite devastating but I'm ecstatic for the girls that have something to go to now," Ferguson said.
"The fact that a few of our games have been shown through the media and we have heightened attention has given that some aspirations but this is just going to increase that even more and it's really exciting for the generation that's about to come through."
Apps pointed out those pathways had already been expanded somewhat with the NSW Women's team included in NSW pathways with additional training runs.
"We've beaten Queensland for the first time so to have an actual junior competition to start will just grow the game even more and the skill level will increase one step further," Apps said.
"I wish we had it when I was younger and coming through but it's very exciting for the girls coming through and the Jillaroos will be even stronger in the future.
"There wasn't really a pathway for women [previously] so they sort of ventured off to other codes as well so to have this pathway for the younger girls, it's going to encourage so many more girls to get involved in it. If they can go through, even school level and increase it from there."
Game on. Data off.
Stream every NRL game, including finals, live and data free with a 2016 Footy Pass, exclusive to Telstra mobile.
Watch all the NRL action live on your compatible tablet or mobile device with data-free streaming on your Telstra mobile plan.
For use in Australia only.