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Try doubles to debutant wingers Margot Vella and Cortez Te Pou ensured that Saturday afternoon’s 2023 NRLW home opener at WIN Stadium was a memorable one for the Red V as they put together a convincing 38-12 win over the Parramatta Eels to open their account for the season.

For Vella and Te Pou, the try-scoring efforts and subsequent celebrations were fitting rewards for years of perseverance, diligence, and hard work.

No two NRLW journeys are the same and that rings true for Vella – a Leppington local and former Waratah whose rugby union exploits took her stateside at one point – and Te Pou – a Hawke’s Bay-native who took a leap of faith to pursue a rugby league dream sparked out of COVID-19 isolation.

Vella was proud to have run onto WIN Stadium with her supporters' party and packed hill behind her after a tiring pre-season.

“It was probably one of the hardest pre-seasons I’ve had, so to finally put on the jersey was pretty special to me and definitely a dream come true,” Vella said.

“It was so good. It was really enjoyable. I’ve thought about this for years but finally putting it into action was really special… I actually had heaps of people there. I had my whole family, my aunties, a few extended relatives and then I got all my friends from other sports come along, so it was really nice.”

The 24-year-old could not have asked for a better opening touch to her NRLW career with a perfect Tyla Nathan-Wong cut-out landing on her chest and setting her up to dive over in the left corner of the southern end.

“The first one, I just had a feeling it was on. I put my hand up and I thought Tyla was going to kick but she just threw it straight to me and all I had to do was walk in and put it down,” she said.

“Credit to her. I had a pretty easy job but that was just so exciting to be able to, first touch of the game, score a try. I didn’t even realise that until Sowie said that to me after the game.”

Vella and Nathan-Wong paid homage to their rugby union backgrounds with a line-out celebration drawn up during the week.

Margot Vella performs a line-out with Tyla Nathan-Wong for her first try's TRY July celebration.
Margot Vella performs a line-out with Tyla Nathan-Wong for her first try's TRY July celebration.

Vella’s second four-pointer of the afternoon did the rounds on social media thanks to her dancing feet in the lead-up and Conor McGregor-inspired celebration in the aftermath.

“My second one, I threw in a little ‘goosey’,” she laughed.

“I don’t really think about what I’m doing. I just let myself do whatever I feel like doing. My celebration was a bit of Conor McGregor; he’s an absolute workhorse and he’s definitely an idol for me.”

Having enjoyed a unique sporting journey that included a pitstop at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut, Vella was inspired to chase her NRLW dream after seeing the rapid growth of the competition in recent years.

“When I saw NRLW really starting to take off, I was like, ‘I really want to try league again’ and here we are,” she said.

“I started in Oztag and touch and then, through a beach rugby tournament, I got asked to play sevens in Hong Kong. From that, there was an American scout, so I went over to America to play rugby union. I did my first season in America, came back, decided I kind of liked it and did it for a bit. I did swap to the Harvey Norman’s Women’s Premiership for one season but then I got into NSW Sevens, so went back to playing union and ended up with the Waratahs.”

The Maltese international was drawn to the Dragons thanks in large part to the culture that head coach Jamie Soward has cultivated since taking over the role ahead of the 2021 season.

“I did have a few options. My manager kind of helped me work my way around it and this one was the closest one to home,” she said.

“With the club culture here and Sowie as a coach, I knew I was going to learn heaps and, at the end of the day, I really want to improve my game.”

Hailing from Hawke’s Bay on the east coast of New Zealand's North Island, Te Pou took a chance and made the move to Sydney to hunt an NRLW contract last year.

“There’s definitely been a lot of sacrifices,” Te Pou said.

“I moved over here last year and moved away from my family, so it was really special to finally get there and realise that it was worth moving away from home… There was a couple of my mates that came. My family had an unveiling, so weren’t able to make it but, if I play in the future, hopefully they’ll be able to come to one of those games, but they were there in spirit.”

'To score even one try on debut is pretty special': Te Pou's dream debut

Both of Te Pou’s tries came in near-identical fashion off the boot of Dragons skipper Raecene McGregor who she has managed to build a natural chemistry thanks to previous experience playing alongside her at Harvey Norman Women's Premiership level.

“The first one, I think Lex made a break and they were quite jammed in. I think they were worried about what was happening around the ruck and I just had so much space on my outside, so I was just putting my hand up and Rae just kicked it perfectly for me,” the 22-year-old said.

“The second one was I think just learning from the first one. We knew the space was there and we were just lucky enough to get in the second one as well… It’s a bit of like a natural talent. Like, me and Rae haven’t even practiced that. I feel like that’s a good thing to look at. I take my hat off to Rae, we haven’t even practiced it and she can just pull it off on the field which is good. I’ve played fullback in union, so sort of pretty good under the ball.”

Te Pou made the decision to purse rugby league after admiring the NRLW from afar whilst isolating due to COVID-19 and is “really glad” that she managed to link up with the Red V.

“I grew up playing union. I played that pretty much until I was about 19 or 20 and just played a few reps back home with my province. I got Covid in February last year and was watching the NRLW and I was like, ‘oh, that looks pretty cool, like, I feel like I want to have a shot at that’ and then I literally just emailed a few clubs here in Sydney,” she said.

“The North Sydney Bears reached out to me, and I ended up coming over. I made the change over to the Bulldogs this year and was lucky enough to get some messages from Sowie and, yeah, we talked for a couple of weeks and got the heads up to come. I’m really glad I chose this club. I don’t think I would have chosen any other club to be honest.”

Acknowledgement of Country

St George Illawarra Dragons respect and honour the Traditional Custodians of the land and pay our respects to their Elders past, present and future. We acknowledge the stories, traditions and living cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders peoples, where our games are played, our programs are conducted and in the communities we support.

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