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The Broader Game: Come home and play - Eels' pitch to lure stars

Parramatta Eels coach Dean Widders believes the club's biggest advantage in the NRL Telstra Women's Premiership is having the ability to open the doors to all talent across western Sydney. 

The Eels unveiled their first five signings on Wednesday night with Jillaroos representatives Tiana Penitani, Simaima Taufa and Botille Vette-Welsh set to wear the blue and gold in 2021.

NSW representatives Kennedy Cherrington and Filomina Hanisi will also join the club, meaning four of the club's five inaugural players either resides or has hailed from the region.

Hanisi returns to the Eels after representing the Tarsha Gale Cup side in 2018, while Cherrington also grew up in Sydney's western suburbs before moving to Perth with her family.

"I think it's a unique position for us in terms of recruitment," Widders told NRL.com.

"Recruiting players in the NRLW this year is going to be very competitive but there are a lot of girls out there who want to represent the area.

Widders can't wait to pull Eels colours back on again

"Equally, we want players to come home and help create a strong culture that might not be at another club.

"The Eels are an opportunity for everyone in western Sydney to be able to do that."

Widders will take on a lead NRLW coaching role for the first time in his career after previously being an assistant at the Roosters in 2018.

The former Roosters, Eels and Rabbitohs forward has an extensive coaching background in the women's game, including leading roles with the Indigenous All Stars and Jillaroos previously.

He'll be joined by assistant coaches Kate Mullaly and Darrin Borthwick, while former NSW coach Andrew Patmore will oversee the women's program.

"It's a good group of people who bring different strengths," Widders said.

"We'll learn a lot from each other and grow as a team. In the conversations we've had so far we're all on the same page to build a team that represents the community.

"I'm pumped. I've felt what it's like to play for Parramatta and how passionate the fans are and what the club means to the area.

"We'll try and teach the girls along the way. I think it's important for them to know that they're forging the foundations for Parramatta in this space.

"What they create is going to be a legacy for the club going forward and we're really excited about that."

The scramble to fill the 24-player squad in the next month is a mission for every NRLW club but Widders has taken it as a positive for the women's game. 

Bo Vette-Welsh probes for an opening .
Bo Vette-Welsh probes for an opening . ©Nathan Hopkins/NRL Photos

"I think the girls are the ones who have earned it," he said.

"They've pushed the professionalism in rugby league forward over the past few years.

"Players can now choose to go to a club that suits them, the position they want to play and the area where they live to help accommodate their lives.

"They're all decisions that our male athletes have when they're weighing up decisions.

"Now the girls have got those options. I think that's exciting. They'll reap the benefits."

Tiana Penitani suffered a knee injury in the Women's Origin clash.
Tiana Penitani suffered a knee injury in the Women's Origin clash. ©Nathan Hopkins/NRL Photos

Penitani sweats on scans

Tiana Penitani is waiting on MRI results after leaving the field with a knee injury in NSW's 8-6 loss to Queensland in State of Origin last week.

Penitani was strong with her carries in the 8-6 defeat until she was twisted awkwardly in a tackle during the second half.

It's believed the 25-year-old has been cleared of any serious damage but could face a delayed start to pre-season training at her new club later this month. 

Karina Brown joins the Titans

NRLW clubs doing their sums

The NRLW's points cap system for 2021 was released via NRL.com's signings tracker on Wednesday with a couple of key changes.

In 2021, NRLW clubs can only "spend" 130 points on a squad of 24 players. 

Last year that figure was 160 points for 22 players. The reduction of points but increase of squad sizes signals the intent to field talent equalisation across the board.

With the top five earning up to 50 points, that leaves NRLW clubs with 80 points to fit 19 more players into their squad at an average of 4.2 points per player.

Furthermore, only the Harvey Norman All Stars match in February is counted for this year, meaning the National Championships and women's Ampol State of Origin match is excluded.

This means young gun Maroons hooker Destiny Brill and Tiana Raftstrand-Smith will be worth just one point to a club this year as they are yet to make their NRLW debuts.

However, injured Maroons forward Annette Brander, who missed the Origin clash due to a leg injury, is worth nine points to an NRLW club after playing in the interstate game last year. 

NSW debutante Kennedy Cherrington is also worth 10 points after earning a centralised contract at the Eels this season. 

Players who represented the Jillaroos or Kiwi Ferns in the last Test match played between the two nations in 2019 are worth eight points each. 

Caitlan Johnston joins the Knights

Knights lock in first signing

Newcastle coach Blake Green has had some joy on the recruitment front with local talent Caitlan Johnston announced as the club's first signing.

Johnston is an Indigenous All Stars representative who claimed the Nat Dwyer medal after starring for the NSW under 18s side against Queensland in 2019.

"I felt having come through the pathways here at the Knights, it was time to come home,” Johnston said.

“This gives our girls an opportunity to get where they want to in their rugby league careers and I’m really looking forward to it.

“I feel I’ll bring my aggression and knowledge of the game to the team."

Green added he had travelled to Queensland in the past week to meet with potential recruits.

The Knights have reportedly struggled to attract marquee players to the club immediately but remain confident of fielding a competitive side.

"I tried to convince people I wasn't just a car salesperson over the phone, that I'm actually a good guy and it's safe to come to Newcastle," Green joked.

"We identified a few players that could be important to the group. It went really well, we've landed a few good players.

"We're going to provide a really good environment where the players are going to be able to express themselves, learn and develop."

Norris links with Titans

Successful Maroons coach Tahnee Norris will step into her first NRLW role this season with Jamie Feeney bringing her on board as an assistant at the Titans.

Norris has long-held aspirations to coach in the NRLW and will join the club for pre-season training on July 12.

The most-capped Jillaroo coached feeder club Burleigh to victory in the BHP Premiership with several players including Nellie Doherty medal winner Tazmin Gray and Karina Brown part of the side.

Tweed Seagulls coach Chris O'Connell will also join the club's coaching staff. 

Everything you need to know about the NRLW

COVID bites Origin, HNWP

NSW and Queensland players were subjected to strict COVID-19 protocols on the day of Ampol Women's State of Origin at Sunshine Coast Stadium last week which limited their interaction with the crowd for a consecutive season. 

The last-minute changes to protocols came via the NRL's Project Apollo team with players required to enter a clean zone and get temperature checks before entering the stadium.

Several players from both states recorded high-temperature results due to the use of headphones and jumpers on the way to the game.

Players took off their jackets and stood outside for several minutes to cool their bodies down before receiving the all-clear.

It's a scenario that could take place in the NRLW again this year if COVID-19 cases in Sydney remain a problem during the next month.

In footy and in life, be there for an offload

Meanwhile, the Harvey Norman NSW Premiership finals series has been heavily impacted with the competition postponed and the playoffs now a top-four format, meaning the Wests Tigers and St Marys have been automatically eliminated.

The NSWRL remain hopeful players contracted to NRLW clubs will be available for the semi-finals and final on July 17 and 24 respectively but some players and NRLW clubs are wary of the overlap.

A core group of NSW Origin representatives including Kezie Apps, Jess Sergis and Isabelle Kelly are expected to be impacted in some way. 

NRLW clubs keep eye on Olympics

We mentioned a couple of weeks ago clubs were going to monitor the rugby sevens talent at the Tokyo Olympics given the NRLW starts less than a fortnight after the games finish.

NRL.com understands NRLW clubs will be given until the final week leading into round one to finalise their rosters, leaving the door slightly ajar for players to back up after the games.

Cross-code stars Charlotte Caslick, Ellia Green and Evania Pelite lit up the NRLW last season and enjoyed their time playing rugby league.

Whether Rugby Australia allows the trio to back up and switch codes is another question, but many other Sevens players also remain on the radar of NRLW clubs. 

 

The views in this article do not necessarily express the opinions of the NRL, ARLC, NRL clubs or state associations.