Hilder discusses new halves and debutants

Margie McDonald

“The women’s game is in a really good place in NSW at the moment.”

That’s the word from Westpac NSW Sky Blues coach Kylie Hilder, who along with assistant coaches Ruan Sims and Sam Bremner, named the 20-member team for Ampol State of Origin Game One at Suncorp Stadium on Thursday 16 May.

Hilder said the success of this year’s Westpac Tarsha Gale Cup for Under-19s and Westpac Lisa Fiaola Cup for Under-17s, showed the talent waiting in the wings for higher honours.

Hilder had a 36-member NSW Pathways team training twice a week for two months from which she named the Origin side today, including debutants Olivia Higgins at hooker, and Grace Kemp at prop.

“Olivia has been knocking on the door for a little while now, and has been outstanding for the Newcastle Knights. She’s a very smart No.9,” Hilder said.

“Grace has also been outstanding coming into Rugby League (from rugby union) for the first time last year with the Canberra Raiders.

“She’s a big body off the bench and she’s a great human too. She’s loving the game of Rugby League and she’ll be very hard to handle.”

There are 12 members of the winning Game Two team from last year in the 17 named today.

There will be a different halves pairing for Game One 2024, with Rachael Pearson and Corban Baxter replacing Jesse Southwell and Taliah Fuimaono.

“We’ve gone for Rachael and Corban, who complement each other perfectly in the halves,” Hilder said.

“Rachael controls the pace well and has a great kicking game, and we lacked that last year.

“Corban played at fullback for the Roosters last year but she has that running style of a five-eighth.

“(Jesse) was obviously disappointed like the other players that missed out. But it is a three-game series and she is young.

“All the players that have missed out in that 36 do understand that at any time we might need to call on them and they need to be prepared and ready.

“They were all disappointed as they should be. Getting to play for your state is a great thing.

“But we want to keep them involved in what we’re doing. As I’ve said to all the girls that hopefully when we’re holding that shield it’s taken all 36 of us to get there.”

The back five of fullback Emma Tonegato, wingers Tiana Penitani and Jaime Chapman, and centres Isabelle Kelly and Jess Sergis is unchanged.

“They’ve been together a couple of years now and have been outstanding… the fact we’ve got someone like Jakiya Whitfeld (18th player) possibly coming into the team just shows our depth.

“If you saw her season last year you know how she’s been training with us this year.”

Caitlan Johnston returns from a knee injury after missing the 2023 series, while Simaima Taufa is still recovering from off-season shoulder surgery but will be available for Game Two selection.

The 2024 co-captains are the two most experienced players – Kezie Apps, who is about to play her 12th match for NSW and Kelly, lining up for her 11th