Youngest-ever Jillaroo realises Test dream
Four players from the women's Indigenous All Stars side will make their Jillaroos debut on Friday night, the youngest of whom, and youngest-ever Jillaroo – 18-year-old Casey Karklis – has had to clear several major hurdles just to get a game throughout her young career.
Karklis, Indigenous All Stars captain Tallisha Harden, as well as Latoya Billy and Mahalia Murphy, will each run out for their first Test for the Jillaroos after impressing national coach Steve Folkes in the All Stars game. Folkes described the quartet as having "raw talent that we couldn't pass up".
In a week where the players were presented their jerseys including a naming rights sponsor on the front for the first time, after long-term NRL partner Harvey Norman announced a three-year naming rights partnership with the Jillaroos, Karklis told NRL.com the match against a highly physical Kiwi Ferns outfit should provide a good test.
Karklis's twin sister Amy also plays rugby league for Souths Logan in Brisbane, and according to Jillaroos skipper Steph Hancock is every bit as good as her sister, and the pair have had a few barriers to cross just getting a game.
First their parents were reluctant to let the girls play full contact sport, and these days the North Stradbroke Island local has to stay overnights on the mainland one night per week just to go to training because there isn't a boat late enough to take her home afterwards.
She said her older brothers brought the twins up with rugby league and the girls were taught to catch a footy before they could walk.
"[At first] we weren't allowed to play, our parents didn't really support it that much, then they allowed us to play under-9s and that's when we slowly came through," Karklis said.
The joy of playing junior league for the Straddie Sharks didn't last long – age 12 represents the conclusion of mixed gender rugby league games – and with no female competition the twins had to find another outlet.
"From under-12s, since you can't play with boys then, we tried to make a team so we had a little Straddie team in under-14s and then we just played [against] Deception Bay so it was just two teams but it was a good head start," she said.
Karklis's journey to more senior representative sides came after an approach from a family friend – but again age provided a barrier.
"We were only 16 so we had to wait a few weeks until we turned 17 to play for Souths Logan [and] it started from there."
She said while she wasn't able to get to training too often last year there is a weekly session she makes the effort to get to this year.
"This year we catch the boat over to the mainland every Wednesday and that's our usual training. Then we stay over because there's no later boat so we stay over and go back the next morning."
Karklis said the pre-season All Stars game is the biggest match she's played in to date – until this Friday night, at least.
"It was an awesome experience to be playing for your culture and representing what you love," she said.
She added her fellow Indigenous All Star Ash Singleton had helped her come out of her shell, after Karklis labelled herself "a real shy person". Tracey Thompson – an Indigenous advocate, former rugby league player who is also from Brisbane and one of Karklis's idols, has been another mentor.
The connection with the other four Indigenous All Stars representatives – the three debutants and Jillaroo Jenni-Sue Hoepper – also helped her settle into the squad.
The diminutive Karklis said she'll have to rely on her speed to survive against the big physical Ferns side.
"I play dummy half, I also play a bit of halves, and last year at club I played fullback – I liked catching them off-guard and using my step and speed," Karklis said.
"I'm expecting a pretty physical game, so I've got to get mentally ready for that, it will be tough but it should be a good test for me."
The livewire dummy half drew healthy praise from her captain and coach.
"Casey and Amy, who also plays with us at club level, they're identical twins and I honestly think selectors could mistake one for the other," Jillaroos skipper Steph Hancock said.
Hancock also plays for Souths Logan and has had a close up look at the pair in club footy.
"Amy's just as good as Case, deadset. They're trouble now in club footy and hopefully they will be for Queensland this year but definitely in a couple of years time they'll be a force to be reckoned with, those two little buggers."
Coach Steve Folkes was also excited to unleash Karklis on Friday night.
"She's very talented, the trouble is finding a spot for her [because] we're fairly set in the halves," he said.
"She's going to come off the bench, she might play a bit in the halves, she might play some at nine."
He also praised the youngster's toughness in coming up against far bigger girls when he watched her in the All Stars game.
"She's a tough nut for a little girl. She's got great speed and evasive skills. She'll do some damage hopefully when she comes on," he said.