Newcastle NRLW head coach Blake Green has lauded the acquisition of Caitlan Johnston as “an important signing” for the Knights’ inaugural women’s side.
With “local” trio Hannah Southwell, Brydie Parker and Yasmin Meakes opting to stay with the Sydney Roosters in 2021, in the hopes of winning a title, the Hunter outfit searched far and wide for the right recruits, who’ll etch their names in the history books next month.
Newcastle joins the competition for the first time with fellow newcomers Gold Coast Titans and Parramatta Eels, following in the footsteps of foundation clubs Brisbane Broncos, New Zealand Warriors, St George-Illawarra Dragons and the Roosters.
So, recently-retired NRL star Green was clearly delighted to land the prized signature of Belmont-born Johnston, 20.
“It was vital to get a local figurehead that we can build our team around,” he said.
“She’s certainly someone that we can be proud of.
“Caitlan’s only young, but she’s played in a few Indigenous All Stars’ games and been in the Roosters’ system.
“She boasts a bit of experience, which will be nice for the side.
“Also, it’s a big step for her to show the courage to come back to her local club, now that we’ve got an NRLW team, without being able to see the pathway.
“It’s okay to paint the visions; it’s obviously a lot easier to make a decision when you can physically see it.
“So, Caitlan’s put a heap of trust in us.”
Green, who recently retired from the NRL after 270 appearances with the Parramatta Eels, Cronulla Sharks, Canterbury Bulldogs, Warriors, Melbourne Storm, Manly Sea Eagles and the Knights, is confident the strength of the women’s game in the region will provide a bright outlook for Newcastle.
“The Hunter is a great breeding ground for female rugby league,” he said.
“And, that’s the most exciting thing about it – we’re creating a pathway for girls as young as six.
“They’re going to be able to live out their dreams, to play in the NRLW, and they can stay in Newcastle to do it.
“They, or their parents, won’t have to worry about driving around NSW or flying up to Queensland to achieve it.
“Their level of commitment is something I’ve also picked up.
“It’s not a hobby to them; it’s a big passion of theirs.”
The Knights are set to unveil their 24-women squad after the third State of Origin. That just means there’s more work for Green in the meantime.
“I haven’t set any specific goals just yet,” he told the Newcastle Weekly.
“But, I want all the girls who come to the Knights to leave after this three-month period and walk away becoming a better player.
“I’d like them to tell people how much of a good time they’ve had; how much they’ve learnt; how well they were looked after by the club.
“That’s only going to help us grow our pathway system and attract more players to the Knights.
“I’m big on having the right personnel in the organisation.
“Good people are important; that’s something I’ve made sure we’ve done.
“I’ve been on the phone to these girls, I’ve met them in person, and I’ve met some of their parents.
“So, I know exactly what we’re gaining – we’re getting good people, hard workers.
“We’re going to be effort-based and set some standards that are vital for the future.”
Green’s enthusiasm is sure to rub off on the Newcastle players, too.
“It’s a very exciting time,” he said.
“It has come around very quickly, however I’ve been prepared for something like this for a while now.
“Maybe, to be honest, not in this capacity.
“I thought my [coaching] journey, after hanging up my boots mid-season, might start at a junior level.
“But, I’ve bypassed that route.
“I’m ready to rock and I’m sure the girls are as well.”
Meanwhile, the NRL is attempting to push ahead with plans for a full women’s competition amid fears the season could be shortened or left under threat by Sydney’s latest COVID outbreak.
NRLW clubs were meant to begin pre-season training today for the newly-expanded six-team tournament, but that has now been pushed back by at least a week.
The competition was meant to kick off mid-August, with three sides based in Sydney and double-headers with men’s NRL games.
The prospect of those matches now looks increasingly unlikely unless teams return from Queensland in a month.
Making matters more difficult for the NRL is that the women’s players are not full-time athletes and, therefore, cannot easily be placed into a bubble.
Likewise moving the competition interstate would therefore become more difficult, after having cleared the first hurdle of acquiring enough talent for new clubs Newcastle, Gold Coast and Parramatta.
Options could include compacting the season into a shorter time span with all 18 games still played or lessening the amount of fixtures.
“We’re absolutely reviewing our plans for NRLW,” CEO Andrew Abdo said.
“We are going to have to amend our plans.
“We’re going to have to adapt; and think about pre-season and think about tournament length.
“We have to think about how we create an environment that’s safe for our female players, and officials involved in NRLW.
“It’s a huge challenge for us.
“We’re working on it, and I would imagine in the next week, be able to provide some clarity on what a revised NRLW would look like.”
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