This story was first written for and published by NRL.com.
Knights recruitment manager Alex McKinnon’s belief that Newcastle is the “gateway to NSW rugby league” will be further enhanced by Sunday’s women’s combine.
With the club in the process of chasing a spot in an expanded NRLW competition, the Knights plan to build a Women’s Academy as part of their preparations.
McKinnon said bolstering the women’s program is a positive for all league fans and players in the region.
“I’m not the only one who believes this, but the Newcastle Knights are the gateway to NSW rugby league,” he said.
“It only makes sense that we have a women’s team because of the connection we have to so many people in the area.”
After club boss Philip Gardner made it clear last September that the Knights wanted a NRLW team, Sunday’s combine marks an important step towards that goal.
Jillaroos coach Brad Donald and Blues coach Andy Patmore will be two of the interested onlookers.
While the combine was limited to 100 players, over 180 women expressed interest. That forced the club to put 80 women on to a short list, with previous participation in games in the region to serve as their resume.
When the establishment of the NRLW was first announced in 2017, the Knights were not in a position to make an application for a licence.
For McKinnon, this came down to a number of factors. At that point, there was still the new ownership of the Wests Leagues Group and the rugby league team was in a different place.
McKinnon believes the rapid growth of the game means the time is now right to chase an NRLW spot.
“You want to do things correctly. I think it is important that the club was in a good position and had a good foundation before we focused on expansion,” he said.
That foundation includes the Knights team that competes in the Tarsha Gale Competition and the CRL Newcastle team which competes in the NSW Women’s Premiership and that won the grand final last year.
But it takes a lot more than talent on the field to build a successful team with the construction of the Knights’ centre of excellence a step in the right direction. That set-up will include room for multiple teams.
For McKinnon, these additional building blocks are crucial.
“One of the things that I have learnt through this process, and it relates to me as well, is understanding what equality is,” says McKinnon.
“Equality is not just being able to provide a platform for women to play, but also equal opportunity in terms of equipment, bathrooms and physio rooms.
“It’s not just about giving women the chance to play and allow them to feel grateful for being involved. It’s about making sure that women have a real chance to succeed, not just an opportunity.”
Some of the most talented women’s rugby league players in Australia are products of the Hunter region.
The most well known is Australian Jillaroo and Sydney Roosters Women’s Premiership player Isabelle Kelly.
Another talented Novocastrian featured in last weekend’s All Stars clash with Bec Young playing a leading role the Indigenous All Stars team’s victory.
Young made her debut for the Jillaroos in 2011 and was part of two World Cup campaigns, but is well known in Newcastle for her involvement with North Newcastle and her passion for coaching, particularly young women.
Other talented women to emerge from the area include Caitlin Moran and Holli Wheeler.
Imagine what could be achieved with an NRLW team for the region to call its own? With the NRL set to make an announcement about expansion of the NRLW in the coming months, perhaps the area won’t have too much longer to wait.