From soccer stars to NRLW: Trio to make history

Hannah Southwell was just 15 years old when she made her W-League debut, Shakiah Tungai won the Kyah Simon Medal at the 2016 National Indigenous Championships and Josie Strong has played goalkeeper in the elite NPL NSW Women's competition.

After excelling at soccer, the trio have each made the successful transition to rugby league this season and are members of the St George Illawarra squad for the inaugural Holden NRL Women's Premiership starting this weekend.

It's been a rapid rise for all three, who only fully committed to the game this year after stints in other sports because they weren't able to play rugby league in their teens.

"I've always loved league, I started with league when I was younger and then there wasn't anything around so I had to go to soccer," said Southwell, who was entrusted by the Newcastle Jets at 15 to stop the likes of Sam Kerr and Caitlin Foord scoring goals and represented the Young Matildas.

"I played school soccer and got selected for the Emerging Jets and then the Youth Jets. I had a couple of tournaments, played nationals and I actually got picked by the W-League side at 14 but I couldn't play because of age restrictions.

"I was the youngest ever W-League goalkeeper and it was pretty scary having Sam Kerr running at you. Kyah Simon scored a couple of goals against me and Caitlin Foord just ripped us apart in a game at WIN Stadium but I enjoyed the pressure."

Dragons player and former soccer star Hannah Southwell.
Dragons player and former soccer star Hannah Southwell. ©Photo supplied

Tungai was also promoted to a high level at a young age and won the Golden Boot as leading goal scorer for four consecutive season from 2012 in the Football South Coast Women's competition as she helped Albion Park become the most dominant club team in NSW.

The 21-year-old was also awarded the Kyah Simon Medal as player of the tournament at the 2016 National Indigenous Championships but after taking up league for the first time last year she has now quit soccer and will play on the wing for the Dragons.

"I started playing soccer when I was about 12, I played juniors and then, when I was 14, I played opens up until last year," Tungai said.

"I could have taken it further, which I should have, but I just liked to stay local.

"I've played at four Koori Knockouts and backyard footy with my siblings but other than that I am pretty new to the game."

In contrast, Strong began playing league for Berry-Shoalhaven Heads from the age of seven until she was no longer allowed and represented South Coast at the NSW PSSA Championships alongside St George Illawarra five-eighth Keely Davis's brother Rory.

"When I was in year five I didn't get selected because I was a girl but in year six I think they saw through that so I went up to Penrith and played with all the boys. I was the only girl in that comp," the 23-year-old centre said.

"When I couldn't play anymore mum and dad said go and get a different sport. I just fell into soccer and made a couple of state sides. I played for Southern Branch, I played for NSW Country for a few years and I also played my final year for Sydney Uni.

"But rugby league was always in my blood. After soccer, I played for Wests Devils but had to stop because I got a chef's apprenticeship. I came back to the Corrimal Cougars this year."

Despite their relative lack of league experience, the trio have been helped in their transition to the NRL by having played sport at an elite level, with Southwell having trained alongside Australian goalkeeper Lydia Williams in a 2016 Matildas camp.

"It was amazing to see how determined she was," 19-year-old Southwell said.

"I looked up to a lot of the girls at the Jets too and it was kind of a wake-up call to have Emily Van Egmond yelling at you. I really enjoyed that season in W-League but it just wasn’t for me.

"I had to train pretty hard to get my feet working. I was always very good with hand-eye co-ordination but had to work very hard on kicking the ball because I needed to use my feet to be a goalkeeper.

"It has helped heaps now. I can kick because of soccer and game awareness would be another big thing. Being a goal keeper you have got to be very game aware of where things are happening and who is doing what so that really helped out with league."