NRLW, more than just a game

HOMECOMING: Dragons fullback Botille Vette-Welsh will play in front of family and friends in New Zealand for the first time since leaving for Australia as a 13-year-old. Picture: NRL Photos
HOMECOMING: Dragons fullback Botille Vette-Welsh will play in front of family and friends in New Zealand for the first time since leaving for Australia as a 13-year-old. Picture: NRL Photos

MOST rugby league players have some sort of pre-game ritual. Some are superstitious - left sock before right sock and so forth.

Some are downright bizarre - Adam McDougall talking to his own thighs. Some go and play the pokies but we won't go there

Dragons NRLW fullback Botille Vette-Walsh has one to. Before each game she carefully ties colourful ribbons in her hair.

The famous fibro face-slapping dance it is not, but it's something the 22-year-old does each game without fail.

"I have to make my personalised little ribbons every time I go out on the field so my Nanna knows which one I am on the field," Vette-Welsh explains.

"I can't just say 'I'm the blonde one in the No.1' she needs to see the ribbons to know which one I am on the TV."

Most athletes are loath to deviate from such rituals, but Vette-Welsh will happily do away with it in Auckland this Sunday when she plays for the Dragons against the Warriors at Mt Smart Stadium - the first time her family, Nanna included, have seen her play in the flesh in a decade.

She left her tiny home town of Taipa at the very tip New Zealand's North Island as a 13-year-old to chase her sporting dreams.

It's a town of just over 2000 people. For perspective, the crowd she played in front of for NSW earlier this year was more than five times that.

It's why she waited with bated breath for the NRLW draw - that included a home game for the Warriors - to be released, hoping it would be the Dragons who made the trip across the Tasman.

"As soon as they released [the news] that the Warriors were going to have a home game this year I was praying and hoping it would be against us," she said.

"My whole family's in New Zealand and they've already got the bus ready to bring the tribe down. [Taipa] is in the far north, waaay up the top of New Zealand, it's the middle of nowhere.

"It'll be four and half hours or so to get there but getting the country people into the city is harder than anything else.

"My immediate family, my brothers and my grandparents and all my cousins finally get to watch me live instead of on the TV. I don't have to wear my ribbons so my Nanna knows which one I am on the field. She'll be able to see me quite clearly."

A performance like she produced in a losing side against the Broncos last week and you can bet Jillaroos and Kiwi Ferns selectors will see her quite clearly as well.

It's heartwarming sure, but more than that, it's an illustration of how important the NRLW is and how special it is for the lucky few who get to play it.

It seems a contradiction but her story is unique yet not uncommon. Look across the NRLW playing ranks and the same stories of sacrifice and gratitude abound.

Playing in the women's competition is no small undertaking. Players to shift cities and states, spend time away from family, risk employment to play virtually on the smell of an oily rag.

It what makes the suspension of Teuila Fotu-Moala on Tuesday so hard to cop. It's absurd for the exact same judiciary code and process from the 25-round NRL season to be applied to - at most - a four-game NRLW season.

On that scale, when it comes to personal and team impact, Fotu-Moala has been punished more harshly for dangerous contact than eye gougers George Burgess and Hudson Young.

Kickoff understands the issue was raised by representatives of more than one NRLW franchise prior to the season but it was dismissed.

Now it's Fotu-Moala and the Dragons who pay the price for the NRL's lack of foresight. No doubt the system will be reviewed and, with any sense, changed.

The NRL cannot treat it's women's competition as an afterthought because for Vette-Walsh, who'll be playing this week, and Fotu-Moala who will be painfully watching on, it's a lot more than just a game.

This story Why this weekend means so much to Dragons NRLW star first appeared on Illawarra Mercury.