The Cronulla Sharks have announced a junior Elite Academy squad for 2018 and, for the first time, female players are included.
Three members of the Sharks' premiership-winning under-18s Tarsha Gale Cup team – Quincy Dodd, Kaleah Salmon and Mareva Swann – will take part in the esteemed high-performance program comprised of the club's best juniors aged 15 to 18, with the club looking at potentially adding more female players in the near future.
Male players were selected from the under-16s Harold Matthews and under-18s SG Ball teams and development ranks.
Throughout the program, players will be put through intensive training by NRL-level coaches to prepare them for higher honours. The Academy is now in its fourth year and has already proved successful in aiding junior progression.
"The Elite Academy came about in 2015 after we won the Harold Matthews and SG Ball," explained Sharks Development Manager, Vinh Tran.
"We wanted to create a program that filled the gap between the end of the junior rep season and whatever squad the players are moving into the following year, (so they can) make a successful transition into the next stage of their path, wherever it may be for that player."
Despite being knocked back for an inaugural NRL Holden Women's Premiership licence earlier this year, Tran said the Sharks remain devoted to leading the way in junior female player development – highlighted by the Academy selection of the three young women.
"Given the success of the girls this year with the Tarsha Gale Cup, we're still committed to providing an elite pathway for young female players and athletes within the area," he said.
"The girls winning the Tarsha Gale Cup is just as significant as a Harold Matthews team or an SG Ball team winning the premiership – and the best players in that group should be recognised as well.
"To provide them the opportunity to play women's NRL, next year potentially for some of these girls, is something we were committed to regardless of whether we got a licence.
"We'd like to think that if we get a licence within the next few years that we'd have a good opportunity to get those girls back after providing (a great pathway to the NRL Women's)."
Tran also revealed it was Sharks NRL coach Shane Flanagan who led the charge for the women to be brought into the squad.
"There was a significant push from 'Flano' to get the girls involved. I think he recognised that they're just as entitled to access that elite coaching as our boys are," Tran said.
"When the idea was getting bandied about, Flano was a big driver behind it and got it over the line."
Gun halfback Quincy Dodd, who last weekend excelled on debut for the open-age City NSW side with three tries, told of her elation at joining the Academy.
"It's pretty good to be the first women to be a part of the Elite Academy, to learn new skills about rugby league and compare myself to the boys as well," Dodd said.
"I'm keen for everything – there's always new techniques and skills I can learn. Even though I might know the basics of it, there could be more than that (to master)."
Though Dodd is now 18 and ineligible to play in next year's Tarsha Gale competition, she is delighted to continue her affiliation with the Sharks and hopes to one day represent the club in the NRL Women's.
"Hopefully in the further years there will be a (Sharks) women's side. I'm pretty happy they still included me in the program, as I'm too old for Tarsha Gale but building myself up for the women's which hopefully will happen in further years."
Promising hooker Kaleah Salmon shares Dodd's enthusiasm for the Elite Academy. While Salmon admitted she was initially surprised to be chosen in the program, she's thrilled at the chance to advance her game in a professional environment.
"I'm really excited about it. It wasn't something I was expecting because it has just been an all-boys thing. I'm really happy they're starting to put the girls in it," Salmon said.
"(Rugby league) is an up-and-coming thing for women now so we do need a pathway to get us up and running. It's really good that they're starting to merge it."
Salmon added that she's especially looking forward to working with the Sharks strength and conditioning staff in the gym.
"I haven't had a lot of strength training in my recent sporting (endeavours). It's important for footballers to learn the techniques and skills," she said.
Powerful forward Mareva Swann said she can't wait to get stuck into training and sharpen her ball skills under the tutelage of the expert coaches.
"I'm really excited to start a good program ... for the experience, to work on more skills," she said.
"(It's great) to get the women involved more."
Swann finished by saying the Elite Academy will "100 per cent" help the selected women realise their potential and rise to the top level.