THE 2021 NSWRL country championships present a new challenge for Illawarra South Coast Dragons coach Adam Bezzina.
During the past two campaigns, the Albion Park-Oak Flats mentor has been able to call on the likes of NRLW stars Kezie Apps, Sam Bremner and Jess Sergis.
But as their local club, Helensburgh recently left the Illawarra competition to join Harvey Norman Premiership in Sydney, Bezzina has been forced to call on new and exciting South Coast talent.
"The preparation this year has been solid, although quite different to the years past," Bezzina said.
"Previously, I had the luxury of having a squad that had played together quite a bit at club and representative level, but this season, with a completely new squad, it's taken a little bit longer to strike up combinations.
"In saying that, we've got a really exciting blend of youth and experience, who are keen to make their mark at this level."
Headlining Bezzina's squad are returning front-rowers Jen Latu (captain) and Chentelle Leatigaga - who the coach is expecting to lead the side's go-forward.
In terms of new additions, Bezzina is excited to see what players such as Alicia-Kate Hawke, Tammy Fletcher, Grace Blackmore, Abbey Montgomery and Cheyanne Hatch can do.
"Alicia is our half and will steer the ship around the park, allowing five-eighth Abbey to play her natural running game, which she has developed during her long league tag career," Bezzina said.
"Tammy is an experienced hooker, who will work in cohesion with Jaimi-Lee Cotter and will create chances in attack for us, while forward Grace and fullback Cheyanne have been training strongly and appear set for a big country champs campaign."
First up for the Dragons, after last weekend's opener against the North Coast Bulldogs at Tuncurry's Harry Elliot Oval was washed out, are the Riverina Bulls at Ron Costello Oval on Sunday.
"All the girls have trained well and picked up our simple game-plan ahead of the first match with Riveria," Bezzina, who's in his third year in charge of the side, said.
"Although a lot of girls come from league tag backgrounds, they have a solid background of rugby league knowledge.
"There's actually a fair bit of nerves in the ranks, as this will be a lot of the girls first representative rugby league game - which in my eyes, is really exciting to be able to see what they are capable of at this level.
"They are all looking forward to the challenge and the opportunity to showcase their skills over the next few weeks before we hopefully progress to finals."
This competition, especially with none of the elite Harvey Norman girls competing creates a legit pathway for country talents to 'show their wears'.
"This year, more than probably past seasons gives girls from the country a chance to not only excel at a representative level but also push on for higher honours," Bezzina said.
"Look at Riverina's LeLe Kotoa for example - her journey started in this competition before she had a quick ascension to NSW Country, State of Origin and finally NRLW in a very quick space of time.
"That just shows why this competition is so important for the future of women's rugby league not only in this state but this country.
During Sunday's opener, kicking off at 2.40pm, Hatch will start at fullback for Bezzina's side, with Tenaya Hegarty, Jamie Lee Cotter, Catey Cardwell and Latisha Beringer rounding out the backline - as Montgomery and Hawke will start in the halves.
Latu and Leatigaga are joined by Fletcher, Ella Conlon, Saane Kokomaka and Grace Blackmore in the starting pack, with Shae Muhleisen, Tinei Mauigoa, Anamalia Mataele, Talia Atfield and Tyara Smith on the bench.
This women's fixture will complete a busy day at Shellharbour between the Dragons and Bulls, starting with the Andrew Johns Cup (10am) before the Laurie Daley (11.20am) and open men's country championships (1pm).
Following the completion of the tournament, both an under 19s and open's NSW Country women's side (which will also be coached by Bezzina) will be selected for the Women's Rugby League National Championships.