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Jillaroos in focus: Centres in line for World Cup spots

The Jillaroos centre pairing at the 2021 World Cup are set to be among the star attractions regardless of which players chosen with a wealth of options in the running for a ticket to England. 

Jillaroos coach Brad Donald has at least four specialist centres to choose from with the upcoming Ampol Women's State of Origin clash on June 24 and the NRLW season expected to answer a few questions. 

In a 10-week editorial series, looks at who is in contention for a World Cup spot in the Harvey Norman Australian Jillaroos by position, thanks to leading partners Harvey Norman.

Position Overview: Centre

Likely World Cup spots available: 2-3

Traditionally a squad will carry around three specialist centres although like the wing spot there should be players within who can play both positions if an injury or two strikes while on tour.

In 2017, Brad Donald used Roosters pair Isabelle Kelly and Corban Baxter in the centres throughout the last tournament. Among the others in the squad included Nakia Davis-Welsh, Meg Ward, Chelsea Baker and Sam Bremner.

The Incumbents

Jessica Sergis (Roosters) and Isabelle Kelly (Roosters)

Star Roosters centres Jessica Sergis and Isabelle Kelly have current ownership on the Jillaroos spots in the backline after starring roles for the national side against the Kiwi Ferns in 2019.

Sergis was on debut in that match, running for 171 metres which included a scintillating long-range try, three line breaks and eight tackle busts.

Her performance during the 2019 calendar year later earned her the golden boot award.

Although Sergis has been a leading player over the past four years, the Roosters centre is yet to play in a World Cup after missing selection in 2017.

Kelly was coming off a similar year 12 months prior with the 2018 golden boot winner generating a casual 159 metres for the Jillaroos.

The 25-year-old has been a mainstay in green and gold since 2016 with seven appearances, including being part of the 2017 World Cup win where she scored two tries in the final.

Compared to the fullback and wing spots, which are all but up for grabs, only injury or a big dip in form is likely to prevent Sergis and Kelly from resuming their roles in green and gold in October.

However, there are a few players also hot on their heels…

Jess Sergis and Isabelle Kelly celebrate after winning the 2019 Test.
Jess Sergis and Isabelle Kelly celebrate after winning the 2019 Test. ©Gregg Porteous/NRL Photos

The Contenders

There are a few contenders to challenge Jessica Sergis and Isabelle Kelly for final centre spots this year with specialist centres and versatile backline players all in the mix for selection.

Queensland centres Evania Pelite and Shenae Ciesiolka are likely to have their say when the pair square off with Sergis and Kelly in Origin on June 24.

Pelite has never played in an Origin match but has big game experience after winning an Olympic medal in Rio in 2016.

The Titans flyer has been exceptional since coming over to the NRLW after a career playing in rugby sevens and her match-up against Sergis at GIO Stadium will be worth the price of admission alone.

Although the 26-year-old has also been playing fullback, it was her inaugural season at the Warriors in 2020 where she showed her capabilities on the edge with three tries in three games.

Ciesiolka has proven to be a quiet achiever since also coming across from the rugby sevens circuit but is now a crucial part to Brisbane’s attack and defence in the NRLW.

Other players who could easily make the transition to the centres on the big stage include Emma Tonegato, who made her debut for the Jillaroos on the wing in 2013.

Broncos star Julia Robinson and Parramatta's Tiana Penitani have also transitioned to the centres in recent years and could do a job if required. 

The Bolter

Jaime Chapman

Overlooked by NSW for the women’s State of Origin clash a strong showing by Chapman at her new club Brisbane in the upcoming NRLW season could easily still book her a ticket to England.

Chapman has the X-Factor to star in any contest and with her ability to float between wing, centre and fullback, she adds versatility to any backline and offers a point of different in attack.

Her best assets includes her footwork to weave back on the inside of a broken defensive line, along with her ability under the high ball.

Chapman scored three tries in six appearances for the Dragons during the 2021 NRLW season which included three line breaks and 23 tackle busts.

She averaged 91 running metres per game, a figure that would’ve been higher had she not suffered a concussion two minutes into the side’s clash against the Roosters in round five.

The Final Word

"Centres are becoming more and more important in the game and we've got a lot of great talent in the NRLW on the edges. Jess Sergis and Isabelle Kelly were outstanding in the last Test match and have been really consistent since then. There used to be a mortgage on the centre pairing back in the day with Corban Baxter and Isabelle Kelly but Jess Sergis has come along and moved from the wing to centre. There's plenty of others in contention... Vani Pelite is an awesome talent and Tiana Penitani is just a good at centre as she is wing. Chappo (Jaime Chapman) has been playing great footy and Shenae Ciesiolka at the Broncos is improving every week." - Jillaroos coach Brad Donald.

Acknowledgement of Country

National Rugby League respects and honours the Traditional Custodians of the land and pay our respects to their Elders past, present and future. We acknowledge the stories, traditions and living cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on the lands we meet, gather and play on.

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