JUBILANT coach Brooke Saunders has started planning for next season and is confident the Hunter Wildfires can match the heavyweights in Australian women's rugby after her relatively young squad took out Division 2 of the Jack Scott Cup.
The Wildfires capped a breakthrough season with a hard-fought 29-24 win over Campbelltown in the grand final at Forshaw Park on Saturday.
"I hope we get invited back in," Saunders said. "I think it's great for women's rugby in the Hunter. It will grow the game and inspire more players to play.
"There is a really good vibe among the group. We have a really good awareness of what we need to improve on and where we can get better. Playing at this level and playing against Wallaroos, the young girls, especially, get to see first-hand, up-close what they do and how they do it."
Thrown together three weeks before the start of a COVID interrupted nine-team competition, the Wildfires finished within a win of the top five, which would have sealed a place in the first division play-offs.
They then beat Sydney University 2 (29-19) in the major semi-final before accounting for Campbelltown in the decider.
Along the way, they unveiled a host of future stars.
None rose higher than teenage tyro Sophie Clancy.
The 17-year-old fly-half overcame an early cork on Saturday to score a try and play a hand in two others.
"She was outstanding," Saunders said. "She was hurting but she still played the game out and was players' player. Initially, we were thinking about her playing halfback this season but her spot is No.10, she owns that.
"We wanted Sophie to pass the ball early and pick her moments to run. She did that perfectly."
From a quick tap, Clancy stepped off her rightt foot and then exploded through two attempted tackles to touch down next to the posts and give the Wildfires a 10-5 lead.
The Harlequins, led by a monster pack, crashed over on half-time to level at 10-all.
The Wildfires got back on the front foot with two converted tries in five minutes, the second a 40-metre barnstorming effort by winger Taylah Juckes.
"For the whole season, all I wanted was for Taylah to commit to the contact and have an understanding of how big, strong and agile she is," Saunders said
From there, the Wildfires had to defend for large periods.
"Our biggest thing was to chop them down really quick with low tackles," Wildfires co-captain Tammy Clay said. "That was our aim. It didn't quite go to plan all the time but the girls really put their bodies on the line."
However, with Sian Filipo in the sinbin for repeat team infringements, Campbelltown crossed for two tries to close the gap to 24-20 with six minutes
Momentum was with the Harlequins.
Enter Clancy. The clever play-maker produced an inch-perfect kick from near halfway into the Harlequins in-goal and flyer Anika Butler won the race, diving to touch down in the corner.
Ash Walker was unsuccessful with the sideline conversion - her only miss - but the nine-point margin was enough.
"Sometimes you need someone to do something to make the others lift and believe," Saunders said.
Apart from Clancy, Walker was strong at inside centre, No.8 Trudi Peterson got through a power of work and props Tammy Clay and Maryann Utal were strong.
In the division one final, Nelson bay product Maya Stewart scored a try as Randwick went down 22-17 to Sydney University.
Meanwhile, The Waratahs were too strong for Hamilton 64-20 in the final of the Hunter women's Tens competition.