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First Nations Gems score more points off the field in cultural win

Andrew Mathieson -

The First Nations Gems are constantly a threat of winning the NRL women’s national championships, but the concept of the team is bigger than just tournament title wins.

Showcasing every year the next wave of Indigenous female rugby league rising stars -  rather than playing a similar static squad as their state and Pacific rivals do on merit instead of future potential - provides the Gems from widespread regional and remote areas of the country a rare opportunity.

It provides not only exposure to forge their playing careers further towards a NRLW contract, but especially for the latest First Nations inclusions a stronger sense of their cultural identity and understanding from the camaraderie of mobs coming together.

For the first time, the Gems controversially included two North Americans – Marcaya Bailous and Megan Pakulis – earning their spots from the inaugural female combine in Las Vegas during the NRL’s recent historic visit.

Despite those non-Indigenous selections earning the ire from some Gems supporters, others like captain Jessica Howard described the emotional experience as “a week I will always cherish”.

“We come across so many ups and downs throughout life and some people might look you in the eyes and say ‘shame on you’ for playing a sport I love that builds me, and makes me feel honoured,” Howard wrote on a Facebook post, “but for me, this is more than footy, this is family, this is my culture and this is me”.

To enforce an encompassing culture, both on and off the field, two of the Indigenous pioneers, captain Tallisha Harden and coach Bec Young, led out the Gems in this ongoing space.

Harden co-captained the Indigenous All Stars in the earlier annual match against the Maori All Stars in Townsville for what was the forward’s seventh time, just one game short of Young’s all-time record of eight appearances.

“I would have had her if I hadn’t missed the last two with injury,” a stirring Harden recently told about her good friend’s mark.

Young also served as the All Stars skipper before the assistant coach joined coach Jess Skinner, who was the first female in charge of the Indigenous All Stars this year after her predecessor Ron Griffiths was elevated to coach the men’s All Stars side.

The 31-year-old Harden admitted that Young, 11 years her senior, was her inspiration climbing through the ranks.

Both players began playing rugby union before converting that also included Young picked in the Wallaroos squad for the 2006 World Cup before in 2011 the inside centre left the code to play rugby league and move into the front row of the scrum.

But there was a bigger Indigenous reason than Young’s competitive edge that brought the two together, playing out across multiple representative teams.

“She’s a massive role model of mine, actually, and a mentor,” Harden said.

“What she does at home in her community as an archaeologist, and someone who works on her country to preserve and educate others about culture, it’s massive.

“I don’t think that should be understated; her impact community-wide.

“In our program, she’s an Aunty, someone we all look up to, and she’s got a great footy brain on her.

“I honestly think she’s a halfback in a prop’s body – and I’ve told her that.”

The pair are the perfect women to lead the Gems’ program, delivering the balance of knowledge on both football and culture.

The results and reputations of the players that have come before the 2024 side speaks for themselves, Harden noticed, just as the NRLW veteran and North Queensland captain turns into one of Gems’ wise Elders for the next crop of talent coming through.

The Gems were runners-up in their inaugural 2021 competition during a golden-point finish in the first-ever tournament without representative teams from either Queensland, New South Wales or ACT since the women’s national championships began in 2018.

“I was actually looking at the list of playing numbers associated with all the girls, who have played through our program, and some of the names you see are just absolute legends of the (women’s) game,” Harden said.

“Just to be even considered up there with some of those girls is a real honour, a real privilege and something I don’t ever take for granted. It's just such a special feeling.”

This year’s Gems claimed three wins and one loss for a top-four championship finish behind the unbeaten Queensland Sapphires, NSW City and NSW Country.

The First Nations players captured a 26-6 win over Victoria in the first of the modified 40-minute games held at Burleigh on the Gold Coast every day.

An 8-4 victory next over Fiji was followed by a 16-4 loss to the Sapphires before a 12-0 triumph in the final classification game against Papua New Guinea to close off the matches.

Bailous, from Ohio, who has been invited to meet a number of NRLW clubs, crossed the line on three occasions for the Gems while Warluwarra woman Tanika Newton added two more tries to their 11 across the four appearances amid the centre from Ipswich also winning the player-of-the-tournament award.


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