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Ieremia a local inspiration as NRL Victoria's juniors return

Dean Ieremia became the fourth Victorian junior to play first-grade for the Storm last month, but the 19-year-old believes many more will follow him into the NRL.

Ieremia's debut came as NRL Victoria's junior competitions resumed in May after 20 months on hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

While other states played shortened seasons last year, Victoria's lockdown measures prevented them from doing the same.

The Samoan-born Ieremia, a Sunbury Tigers junior who has played two NRL games and scored his first try against the Dragons in Magic Round, is proof of the talent being unearthed south of NSW.

He joined Mahe Fonua, Richie Kennar and Young Tonumaipea as Victorians to make the NRL through the Storm when he featured in a 40-14 drubbing of the Sharks at AAMI Park in round eight.

Ex-Raiders and Bulldogs back Drury Low and current Warriors prop Jamayne Taunoa-Brown also learnt their trade in Victoria.

"I was real proud. I'm the fourth Victorian [junior to play in the NRL for the Storm], which is one every six years," Ieremia told NRL.com.

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"That's what Bellza [coach Craig Bellamy] said. It's kind of setting that standard, that we Victorians can make it to a rugby league team."

The winger, who came to Australia via New Zealand, grew up playing soccer and rugby union across the ditch but his father convinced him to try rugby league as well because he was free on Saturdays.

"I heard about the Victoria state under-15s and under-14s trials," Ieremia said. "I gave it a go and made the state team from there. 

"I love league - especially when you're playing fullback, it's fun. I wanted to keep going, it was what I was good at."

Ieremia graduated to the Thunderbolts representative team and developed in the NSWRL SG Ball and Jersey Flegg competitions.

NRL Victoria had experienced year-on-year growth in its junior competitions since 2006 until the pandemic halted progress.

As expected, there's been a fall in numbers this season but with close to 3000 registered players, NRL Victoria is confident about its position. Excitingly, construction will soon begin on a new State Centre that is hoped to become a breeding ground for more elite talent.

The State Centre, which will house NRL Victoria and Touch Football Victoria, is due to be completed in 12 months.

"To be able to achieve year-on-year growth - there are not too many sports or state sporting bodies that can say they've had that," NRL Victoria general manager Brent Silva said.

"In that time, we also saw the rise of the female game as well. It rose from low, single-digit percentages in the late 2000s to now where 20 percent of our registered participants are female.

Richie Kennar played nine games for the Storm in 2015-16.
Richie Kennar played nine games for the Storm in 2015-16.

"In terms of coming out of the pandemic, we've established a recovery strategy where we supported our clubs to make sure they came back after the pandemic; focusing on their volunteers, particularly coaches, because they're critical in getting players back into their club.

"We're part-way through the season right now, so we've got some indication of our numbers coming back," Silva added. "We knew we were going to have a dip this year but we're on track to meet the target of where we thought we would be for 2021."

Silva lauded the Storm's impact on junior competitions.

"They've been instrumental in the relationships that we have in state governments to support all the investment in facilities," he said.

"They're also very strong in supporting our local clubs and community. They try to connect with those clubs but also give them the opportunity to promote themselves, whether it's clubs being involved in half-time [NRL] games or the Storm sending their players out to local clubs' training nights.

"They're an amazing asset to the game as a whole, but in Victoria, you can't underestimate how much they mean to rugby league."

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While Ieremia admitted he "didn't really watch league growing up, so I didn't really know who was who", he described the Melbourne club as a "massive influence" as they engaged with local teams.

As rugby league continues to grow, Ieremia predicted he'll eventually be one of many Victorian juniors running around in the top grade.

"[With] a new facility that's being built, I reckon people are starting to come and understand that people can play rugby league," he said.

"They're keen to learn the sport. Even some AFL players were texting me. They say, 'League looks fun, but not the contact part!'"

Silva said Ieremia's rise would inspire boys and girls to "know they don't have to leave Victoria" in order to succeed in rugby league.

"They can stay at home with family and friends and can maintain their schooling all back at home because we do have the system, processes, teams and programs," he continued.

"As of next year, we'll have a state facility as well. That completes the picture as far as the pathway goes for any young boy or girl."