a league of their own
Helensburgh rugby league star
Sam Bremner took the field for the Dragons in the first women’s national premiership comp
Blazing the trail as one of four clubs to kick off the inaugural women’s NRL Holden Women's Premiership last September, the St George Illawarra Dragons selected a stellar line-up. Joined by the Brisbane Broncos, Sydney Roosters and New Zealand Warriors, the Dragons team not only made history, but opened pathways for more than 14,000 girls and women currently competing in our region.
Dragons ambassador and one of the first three named in the side, Sam Bremner, 25, couldn’t have been more excited. “I never thought it was a possibility,” says Sam. “I always had goals around my football career, but I never imagined there would be an NRL women’s competition. I’m so grateful to have run onto the field for the Dragons.”
Sam’s footy career, which includes representing both NSW and Australia, began later than most at age 19. Growing up on the sideline watching her brother play and dad coach, in what she describes as her “sports-orientated” hometown of Helensburgh, Sam’s fondest childhood memories revolve around rugby league. Sam played netball, oztag and touch football as a teenager, but after hearing of an Illawarra rugby league ladies’ comp, she asked if there were any girls interested. “We needed 11 players to sign up,” says Sam. “We got 14-15 and it went from there.”
In 2011, after competing at club level for just a year, former Dragons star Mark ‘Piggy’ Riddell approached Sam to play in the NSW State of Origin squad – an opportunity she turned down. “I didn’t think I was good enough,” says Sam.
But after the late, great NSW and Australian coach, Graham Murray, told Sam he wanted her to play for Australia in the Jillaroos side, she reconsidered. “I was a nervous wreck. Playing for your country is the epitome of success in sport. I spoke to my mum, and she asked me, ‘What are you scared of?’ I told her it was the fear of failure. And she replied, ‘Well, if you don’t try you’ve already failed.’”
Mums know best – Sam couldn’t argue. The Helensburgh Tigers trialled and was selected for the NSW squad and therefore eligible to play for Australia. In 2012 – a year after first strapping on the boots – Sam made her debut as a Jillaroo.
“I started playing because I love it, but now I also love that I’m helping pave the way for the next generation,” Sam says. “There is some amazing talent coming up because of the programs in place to help nurture and train these girls. I can’t wait. To be part of that is very special.”
With fellow Dragons ambassador and Jillaroo Kezie Apps, Sam was instrumental in the club's inclusion in the NRL Holden Women's Premiership in 2018. The duo helped push the Red V's bid throughout the tender process. “I rarely stand up and talk about something I’m not passionate about,” says Sam. “I was happy to get in front of the board and state my case for why an Illawarra team was a good fit for the league.”
Described by premiership-winning, ex-Australian coach Tim Sheens as “the female Billy Slater” because of her dynamic style of play, Sam was even more pumped to get back into the action having been plagued by injury (breaking her leg on four different occasions – same bone, different place!), which saw her miss the World Cup in late 2017. “It was my biggest hurdle. It definitely tested my patience, but it taught me resilience,” says Sam. “I focussed on the other areas of my life – being a good personal trainer, a good wife, a good daughter. I love footy… but being out there catching those high balls isn’t everything. That outlook really got me through.”
This recent progression in the women’s game has been encouraging. Just a few years ago, stories of girls selling their cars so they could afford to fly to Samoa to play in the World Cup were not uncommon. But, according to the players, they’d never whinge about being given the chance to compete. While the hope is that one day women will be extended the same opportunities as men to build a financially-sustainable career from footy, Sam is simply stoked to be sporting that red and white jumper!
“I’m so grateful for what I’ve been given. Give me a training singlet and I’m happy,” she laughs. “We all want to produce a quality product because that’s what people want to watch and what young girls want to emulate. I grew up watching the NRL – now to be a part of history and play in the first women’s comp… I’m so honoured.”