The St George Illawarra's Queensland pair set to make imprint on NRL Women's premiership

Close bond: Queenslanders Annette Brander (Left) and Asipau Mafi have made the trip south to play for St George Illawarra. Picture: Georgia Matts.
Close bond: Queenslanders Annette Brander (Left) and Asipau Mafi have made the trip south to play for St George Illawarra. Picture: Georgia Matts.

Could this pair of affable Queenslanders be the St George Illawarra Dragons secret weapon in the inaugural NRL Women’s premiership?

One is the Brisbane Broncos discard who was rejected despite starring for the Maroons in this year’s State of Origin and representing the Jillaroos at last year’s World Cup.

The other is the 25-year-old who fell in love with Wollongong while playing for Queensland during last year’s Interstate Challenge at WIN Stadium.

Together Annette Brander and Asipau Mafi have the ability to impart some insider knowledge as the Dragons commence their campaign against the Broncos on Sunday afternoon. 

“It will be hard because we’re going up against some girls I’ve played club footy with, like Heather Ballinger and Julia Robinson,” Mafi said. “It’s going to be exciting, it’s going to be tough, but I think we can get through.”

Such is the pair’s close bond, they drove down to Wollongong together after the South East Queensland Women’s grand final.

The pair room together at representative camps and are sharing a house in Gerringong with fellow Dragons Talesha Quinn and Oneata Schwalger during the competition. 

While the pair admit there is plenty of time spent discussing tactics, they also find ample time to get to know their new housemates. 

Brander, Mafi reveals, is in charge of nightly entertainment, with board games being her area of expertise. 

With just four weeks for the girls to get to know each other, such activities play an important role in ensuring teammates will be on the same page come game-day. 

“We’re often home at different times, but at night we’re all home together. Annette’s brought down all her board games and we play them at night, which is a lot of fun. 

“It’s really good having her down here with me,” Mafi said of Brander. “She’s represented Australia, played in the World Cup, so she’s pretty well-known when it comes to women’s rugby league. 

“When I have questions, or if there’s something I don’t understand, because she does play in the middle as well, she’s able to help me with a lot of things.

“It’s really good having someone I’m close to that’s from back home as well. She’s someone who’s been able to help me all the way and especially while we’re here.”

While making a clear intention to recruit local players, Dragons coach Daniel Lacey recognised the need for a small number of external recruits to bolster the squad. These two Queenslanders were among the first on his list. 

"We struggled to comprehend how Annette was still available once when the marquee signing period ended,” Lacey said when the pair’s signing was announced.

“Asi is a really powerful middle player, she's worked really hard on her fitness and is really now motivated to maintain her standing as the top 40 player that she is and maximise the opportunity she now has at our club.”

The pair will have differing roles during Sunday afternoon’s Suncorp Stadium homecoming, with Brander selected as the starting lock in an all-Jillaroos backrow alongside Kezie Apps and Talesha Quinn. Mafi will likely have to bide her time before making her Dragons debut, after being selected as 18th woman. 

Having made the move south, Brander is keen to repay the confidence Lacey showed in her when she lines up against the team she had initially hoped to represent. 

“Lacey made me feel like he really wanted me to be here,” Brander said.

“He said there was a really good culture here and it was a really inviting and welcoming feeling and that’s why, when the Broncos did come around, I decided to come to the Dragons, because they showed a lot of interest in me and made me feel valued as a player.”