Siren Collaborator Mary Konstantopoulos speaks with inaugural Newcastle Knight, Tahlulah Tillett about the learnings from Season 2022 and looking towards potential NRLW expansion in Queensland.
With a heartbreaking 14–10 loss against the Gold Coast Titans on Sunday, the 2021 NRL Women’s Premiership came to an end for the inaugural Newcastle Knights team.
Unfortunately, the Knights were the only team who did not post a win this season, but the team’s position on the ladder certainly does not reflect just how competitive the Knights were in their first NRLW season.
In the Knights’ first game against the Parramatta Eels, the team lost by a field goal with 13 seconds to go. Perhaps the season would have gone differently had the Knights posted a win in that first game.
For Tahlulah Tillett, who is part of the inaugural squad, the position on the ladder doesn’t reflect what a great experience it was and how much she learnt. “It’s been a great experience and something I have always wanted to do,” said Tillett.
“To have the chance to live out a childhood dream has been absolutely unreal.
“For me, I have really enjoyed playing alongside all these women, but also getting to know these incredible women off the field. We have women come from New Zealand, Queensland and also from Newcastle, so creating those lifelong friendships is something I have really enjoyed.”
The way the team has conducted itself, both on and off the field is something Tillett is also proud of.
“Things have not gone the way we wanted to on the field, but off the field we have set a good standard and foundation for the next generation to come through,” said Tillett.
“We are the inaugural team and we have built from nothing. We have managed to build something special and I’m excited to see what that brings for the future of the Newcastle Knights.”
For all the new teams that have entered the competition for the 2021 season, those teams being the Eels, Gold Coast Titans and Knights, there have been plenty of learnings, particularly about the importance of supporting athletes who are not full-time professional athletes and who are often juggling work, study and/or caring commitments with elite sport.
But for Tillett, she felt absolutely supported by the Knights throughout this season and the club’s fans. “We’ve felt the support this year, but also last year when the competition was postponed, they looked after us throughout,” said Tillett.
“The fans have been unreal too. I don’t think I have seen a fan base like it, after we play on the weekend, they are all wearing their jerseys around town and really just get around it.”
While fans marvelled over the skill level in this year’s NRLW, the Australian Rugby League Commission was working on a significant announcement about the future of the competition.
Earlier this month it was announced that the NRLW was going to expand with an additional two teams to be included in the 2023 season and then a further two teams in the 2024 season, bringing the total number of teams to 10. While Tillett was committed to the Knights for the 2021 season, the expansion news was particularly exciting given that Tillett is originally from North Queensland and that the North Queensland Cowboys have signalled their intention to put in a bid to be one of those four new teams.
The expansion conversation is an important one, because part of the strength of the NRLW is ensuring that there is depth of talent before width of teams.
North Queensland is a perfect place for a new team, because there is an established pathway that is not being fully utilised at the moment. Three years ago, the Cowboys formed their inaugural women’s academy with the formation of the North Queensland Cowboys Gold Stars to compete from the 2020 QRLW season onward.
This pathway has already yielded results, with eight women from North Queensland competing in the NRLW right now. It would give those women the chance to represent their area and stay at home to play their footy.
“If the Cowboys come into the competition, it would be an awesome opportunity for more women from North Queensland to play footy,” said Tillett. “But a big part of it is, that if you are from North Queensland and want to play in the NRLW now, you have to relocate.
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“It’s been a big obstacle for plenty of us, particularly given the postponement last year. We only got to go home for a few months and then we had to come back again.”
As much as Tillett has enjoyed her time with the Knights, the relocation was certainly challenging.
“It was difficult because you have to leave friends, family and a full-time job,” said Tillett. “But the Knights have been incredibly supportive and Newcastle is a beautiful place.
“Coming here and transitioning into the lifestyle was a lot easier than I thought it would be. I have really enjoyed going to the beaches and getting to know my team mates.”