In a golden era of women’s sport in Australia, as female athletes start to become household names and young fans find more role models to idolise, no sport has captured the attention of supporters quite like women’s rugby league.
Its progression in skill, speed and fitness over the past three years alone has been remarkable, and the best part is they’re only getting started.
With the NRL announcing that another four teams will join the NRLW competition in 2023, taking the total number of teams to ten, the future of the game and the pathways for women involved in the sport is bright.
When the North Queensland Toyota Cowboys proudly announced they were one of the teams joining the NRLW competition in 2023, a wave of excitement was felt around the region and beyond - and no household was more excited for this opportunity than the Tillett family.
If the last name sounds familiar to Cowboys fans, it’s because Stephen Tillett was a foundation Cowboy back in 1995.
He is one of the originals who remembers rolling turf out to get the field ready before their first home game.
“It was really special being part of the foundation group and having the opportunity to represent North Queensland, our community and the region,” Stephen said.
“It wasn’t just about football, we also helped with turfing the field.”
Making her name in the sport is Tahlulah Tillett, Stephen’s daughter. Playing the sport since she was nine years old against the boys for the Cairns Kangaroos, Tillett says she always wanted to play league like her dad.
“Growing up, rugby league was all I ever knew,” she said.
“I started playing when I was nine years old and while there was not a clear pathway at that stage, I always knew this was something that I wanted to do and achieve.
Over recent years with the NRLW coming into place I have been able to achieve the dreams that I had growing up.
It’s not just competing on the field and getting involved in the action that Tillett loves about the game, but also the platform it affords her to make a difference in her community.
“Other than playing, it is the opportunities that come away from the field,” she said.
“I have been very lucky that rugby league has allowed me to get back into the remote communities.
“I am a proud Torres Strait Islander woman, so to be able to use rugby league as a driving tool to help promote a healthy lifestyle and mental wellbeing is really awesome.”
Tillett was recently appointed as a community engagement officer with the Cowboys, which involves connecting with the community and visiting schools, representing the club and delivering a range of social messages.
So far, her travel has included visiting remote locations like Cooktown and Bloomfield where she has delivered the Try for 5! Program, encouraging students to attend school five days a week.
Tillett is also part of the Adopt-a-School program, established by the club as a long-term commitment to North Queensland school communities, seeing players like Tillett take up a role model position for their own ‘adopted’ schools in the region.
“I really love getting into the schools and getting the message across to the kids about how important it is to get to school five days a week so that they can grow up and strive to be the best versions of themselves,” Tahlulah said.
“It is also very important to have that female representation in the communities.
“The young girls see you walk in, they look up to you, and in some ways you are the world to them.
“It’s important for them to have that female role model so that the young girls know when they grow up this is something they could potentially be doing.”
With the future of women’s rugby league gaining incredible momentum, Tillett says she is excited for the future of women who play sport in this country.
Making her NRLW debut for the Newcastle Knights in 2020 and playing in the 2021 season was a dream realised for the young halfback, who has had to show incredible resilience in her fledgling career to make it to the big time.
In 2017, Tillett suffered a meniscus tear to her left knee that required surgery.
In 2018, an anterior cruciate ligament tear to her right knee that also required surgery was a huge blow as she had just been contracted as a top 40 player.
The foul run of injuries was not over, and in 2019 and 2020 there were further surgeries to come with MCL injuries to both knees.
While that would have been enough for some to give up on their dreams, Tillett says it was those setbacks that showed her what capacity she had for overcoming adversity, making her debut in the NRLW worth all the pain, rehab and hard work.
“It was a massive moment and a childhood dream realised,” she said.
“I remember running out at McDonald Jones Stadium and my mum, dad and little brother were there in Newcastle to watch my debut. To have them there was very special.
“I had been through a rough time with injuries, so to finally overcome all of that and live out my dream was pretty special.”
Reflecting on watching his daughter deal with injuries and the dedication and drive it took to see her finally run out for her debut is a moment Stephen will never forget.
“Her resilience was what helped get her through as well as her determination,” he said.
“There are always setbacks in life … but we really admired her ability to keep focused.
“It was not always easy, but she kept working towards what she wanted to achieve.”
Tillett Junior is a member of the 2022 BMD Premiership winners, the North Queensland Toyota Gold Stars, scoring the winning try on the buzzer in the grand final to beat the Central Queensland Capras 14-12, adding another achievement to her growing rugby league resume.
For the rest of the year as Tillett works on giving back to her community, she says she will also be looking at ways she can improve her game to ensure she is chosen to wear one of the Cowboys’ coveted inaugural NRLW jerseys.
“I am using the next six months to get ready for the 2023 season,” Tillett said.
“It is no secret that my goal is to be pulling on a Cowboys jersey next year.
“I am using this time to work hard on my game, and hopefully I can tick another goal off next year and achieve my dream of being able to run out in a Cowboys jersey.”
If Tillett is selected for the Cowboys 2023 NRLW team it will be a historic moment for the club.
It will mean two generations of Tilletts have represented the Cowboys in both the men’s and women’s inaugural competitions.
It will be a moment over 25 years in the making and something Stephen says he never could have imagined when he pulled on a Cowboys jersey for the first time in 1995.
“It is really exciting,” he said. “It’s a full circle moment, and it’s exciting for our young women to have the same opportunity that has been given to the men over the last 25 years.
“It’s not just exciting for Tahlulah, but for all young girls from North Queensland … the women’s game has grown so much in the last few years, and it is great to see the acknowledgment of that by the NRL recognising North Queensland as being a true rugby league heartland.”
Now in its 16th year, NRL Women in League Round celebrates the contribution women make to rugby league, and those who are playing their part to create a more equal future at all levels of the game.
The Cowboys will wear their Women in League jerseys for the second time against the Dragons this Sunday – catch the game live on Channel 9 from 4.05pm.