League-tag legends: From wooden spooners to minor premiers

The Sea Eagles (minus four players) at their final competition round, after clinching the minor premiership for 2019.
The Sea Eagles (minus four players) at their final competition round, after clinching the minor premiership for 2019.

This story could be the synopsis to a great Hollywood feelgood flick - complete with 80s action montage.

You used to be able to count on one hand the number of games the Macksville League-tag team had won throughout its maiden seasons in Group 2.

In 2018, they were officially last on the ladder.

But fast forward to their third season in 2019 when our ladies of league-tag, the soaring Sea Eagles, have well-and-truly landed.

With the final competition round in the bag, the girls have just claimed the honour of minor premiers for the season.

"I remember them all laughing during pre-season training when I said we were preparing for 14 rounds of competition, then semis, then finals," coach/captain Relle Donovan said.

"'Huh?', they went. 'Nah we don't make semi-finals'."

Well not only did they make the semis, but as table leaders, they now get "two bites of the cherry" into the grand final.

They've beaten every team in the competition, so there's absolutely no reason why they can't win the whole thing.

Relle Donovan

When I asked the team what instigated this dramatic turnaround, they all quickly and unanimously point at Relle.

But Relle protests that the magic was already there, all they needed was belief in themselves.

In 2018, Relle was halfback for the season premiers - the South Grafton Rebels. But she felt the call to come to the Valley to be closer to family - most of whom have put on the blue and white for Macksville.

And she was in good company, with a number of her Falcons teammates signing up for the League-tag team.

She said she knew there was something special about the group when 17 of them were showing up without fail during pre-season training early on a Sunday morning.

"We're always here on time, and we're always the last to leave. I'm glad they switch the lights off at 7.30 otherwise we'd be here all night," she said.

When they were getting to know each other, the girls told Relle that it would be better if she trained them like they knew nothing.

But Relle said they clearly did know what they were doing and she was constantly being surprised by their skills.

"That training was a confidence booster, because we weren't just mucking around, we were actually learning the game," player Michelle Jarrett said.

Their first trial match against Wauchope in early March was a breakthrough moment, according to Relle's husband, Anthony, who has been helping to guide the team's form all season.

"They won when they didn't think they could. That gave them a belief they could do it," he said.

There were a few ups and downs during the first rotation of games; they smashed a talented Coffs Comets team in game one, 20-4, but they also drew with Bellingen and lost to Sawtell.

According to players Angie Greenshields and Heather Duncan, the turning point of their season came in the game after that loss - the only one of the season.

"I felt we came together really strongly in that game against the Grafton Ghosts. We had almost no subs, and it was a big slog, but we won and just kept on going from there," Heather said.

Except for one other draw in the second rotation, the Sea Eagles continued that winning momentum throughout the rest of their season.

Angie, who followed Relle down from the Rebels, said that Relle's leadership was a huge factor in the team's success: "She always gives 100 percent - never leaves anything in the tank".

But she said the team itself has a cohesion that makes playing a joy.

"We're all willing to work for each other, and are continuing to improve with each game. And we encourage each other," she said.

There's also a really good mix of old heads and some really young girls too, so you've got wisdom and speed.

There are quite a few mothers on the team, including one with a new bub, so perhaps that energy has helped with group dynamics too.

Relle also has a theory that the strong touch football background amongst them has helped to create a unique gameplay; one in which the ball is constantly being shifted around.

On top of their minor premiership mantle, the Sea Eagles can also claim highest try and point scorers of the season so far with Wulaaran Walker and Kirstie Pedrola taking out those respective titles.

Five on the team were also selected to play for the winning Group 2 representative team, with three then being selected for the regional rep team.

So they've had a series of major successes already and they're yet to hit the finals.

"It feels awesome to win and just be part of a real team," Michelle Jarrett said.

And the girls are buoyed by their new-found self-confidence - they've earned a game off this weekend while the other teams battle it out to challenge them next week.

"This week we're just preparing how we're going to be playing. We're not too fazed about who we'll be playing," Relle said.

"We're just making sure that everything we've worked hard on all season comes out on the day.

"For a lot of them this will be their first final, so we've just got to manage their anxiety on the day."

There's a team dinner planned for Friday and Relle has invited a sports psychologist to have a talk with the team and prepare them mentally for what lies ahead.

Regardless of the finals outcome, they're already the breakout stars of Group 2, and they've got an awful lot to be proud of.

Swoop you mighty Sea Eagles, swoop!

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