Innisfail to Illawarra: chasing an NRL dream

After almost a year of build-up; the kick off for the first ever the Holden Women’s Premiership game is on our doorstep.

The teams for this weekend’s games have been named and lives the women involved in the competition are set to change remarkably.

They have already had to make a number of life-changing decisions to get this far; with many sacrifices made along the way. This is the story of one Queensland woman who is making history having been selected in an inaugural NRL squad.

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Imagine being a sole parent to a young son, working a fulltime job as a PE teacher, trying to fit in football training on Tuesday and Thursday nights – and having to travel between 10-to-12 hours’ round trip each weekend to play rugby league. And then, having to do it all again the next week.

This is the reality behind former Queensland representative and current St George Illawarra Dragons squad member Kate Haren’s journey to follow her passion.

Coming from a rugby league family and town, Haren loved watching her brother play since he was a junior and loved the fact he had the chance to train with his friends twice a week and play on the weekends.

Once the game started to expand and gave women more opportunities to play, Haren had to experience it for herself firsthand.

“It all happened pretty quick,” she said.

“The first year it started up in Cairns, I saw a women’s game and the very next year I decided I wanted to play, so I got a team together and started playing back in 2008.

“In 2009, I made my first of three State of Origin (Interstate Challenge) squads for Queensland (2012 and 2017) and kept playing until about 2013 to take some time off to have a family.”

Kate Haren in Queensland Women's camp in 2017 with assistant coach Ben Jeffries.
Kate Haren in Queensland Women's camp in 2017 with assistant coach Ben Jeffries.

It wouldn’t take long however until the football bug would bite Haren again and lure her back to the game she loved.

“I started coaching in my local town in Innisfail and it just brought back the passion I had for the game, seeing it in the younger girls and I just had to play again,” she said.

“I went to a coaching course in Cairns, did the course in the morning then there was a game in the afternoon, Cairns v PNG (Papua New Guinea), so I brought my boots up and had a game and never looked back!”

Living in Innisfail, Haren doesn’t play for a local team as there currently isn’t one. Instead, she plays for the West Brisbane Panthers, more than 1500 kilometres from the place she calls home.

Her passion requires an enormous amount of dedication, sacrifice, and travel in order for her to pursue her dream.

“My regular week involves working my full-time job which is usually 8am to 4pm and during some part of the day, whether it’s lunch-time or straight after work, I go to the gym twice a week,” she said.

But she’s not done there.

“On Tuesday and Thursday nights, I train with my brother’s men’s team (Innisfail Leprechauns) at their rugby league training.

"Then Friday night, my son goes to my parents and I get up at 2am Saturday morning to leave home at 3am and drive to Cairns airport, which is about an hour and-a-half away, catch the 6am flight to Brisbane to play, then catch the 9.40pm flight to get back to Cairns around midnight and usually get home around 1.30am or 2am Sunday morning.

“And that’s just the home games in Brisbane.”

Haren’s dedication to the sport has not gone unnoticed.

Just a few short weeks ago, Haren and her West Brisbane Panthers made their SEQ Women’s Division 1 grand final which was played at Cbus Super Stadium before the Gold Coast Titans home game, ironically against the Panthers.

Not only that, Haren was also selected be a part of the first ever NRL women’s premiership competition as a member of the St George Illawarra Dragons alongside her Panthers team-mate Asipau Mafi and Queensland star Annette Brander.

“I got a phone call from (Dragons coach) Daniel Lacey who said he’d heard my name around and it’d come with a few good references, so he told me to send through my fitness and he watched a few of my games,” she said.

“I asked Daniel ‘do you know I’m a single mum?’ and he just said ‘don’t worry, we’ll sort everything out, we understand everyone has commitments and we’ll work around them’, so for me that was amazing that a club would do that.

“I have an amazing family and when the Top 40 contracts came out, knowing the commitment it was going to take in camp, I sat them down to tell them I’d need some help and they all just said ‘we’re behind you 100%’.”

The NRL Holden Women’s Premiership’s inaugural season kicks off alongside the NRL Finals Series this Saturday (September 8) and will culminate on grand final day.

Alongside with Haren and the Dragons, three other teams will be a part of this landmark competition for women’s rugby league; the Sydney Roosters, Brisbane Broncos, and New Zealand Warriors.

Kate in her St George Illawarra Dragons kit. Photo: Dragons Media
Kate in her St George Illawarra Dragons kit. Photo: Dragons Media

Haren realises the magnitude of the competition, but knows she deserves to be there.

“I feel the pressure,” she said. “Being a coach, I see myself as representing a lot of girls in North Queensland, trying to show them that there is a step into the NRL and you don’t have to be in one of the major cities or competitions which is really important.

“I’m excited and I want to put on a good performance, but if I didn’t think I was up to it I probably wouldn’t be here.”

For any girls or women who have thought about playing rugby league, Haren has one simple message.

“Give it a go and you won’t look back!” she said.

“Everyone makes sacrifices in their life, but if this is what your dream is and you’re willing to sacrifice a few things and work hard, then it’s definitely a possibility now.”