In November 2020, Kylie Hilder was pulling on a sky blue jersey to represent her state in the annual State of Origin fixture. Seven months later, Hilder finds herself calling the shots as coach of the NSW Blues women in their game against Queensland.
It has been quite the journey for the 45-year-old, who has devoted a decade to the game since switching from a successful Touch Football career.
“Last year when I got off the bus it was as a player, this year I’ll be getting off the bus as the person in control,” said Hilder.
“I sometimes have to pinch myself that I am in this role but the squad has been incredible and have made my job so much easier.
“Having that relationship with so many of the players already has been a bonus for me; I think it would have been a lot harder coming in to coach a squad of new faces.”
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These relationships are crucial for Hilder, particularly given that she has only had a week to work with her squad as they chase redemption for last year's 24-18 defeat at Sunshine Coast Stadium.
Working with the best players in the state at Origin level, the coach's job becomes more about creating a strong bond than teaching them how to play.
“This is purely about bringing the players in, helping them to form combinations and getting them on the same page,” said Hilder.
“When you have such a short turnaround with just a week in camp, we can give them simple structures and shape.
“They are so talented, they pick it up so quickly and we can really focus on building those relationships between the players.”
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This may be Hilder’s first opportunity to coach at a State of Origin level, but she has plenty of experience in coaching rugby league.
Following her first season with the Roosters in the Holden Women’s Premiership she was identified as someone with coaching potential.
Since then she has had the opportunity to coach the Sydney Roosters Women’s 9s team and to be an assistant coach for the Sydney Roosters NRLW.
Hilder's ascension to the Blues job helps signal to the next generation of women that this is a potential pathway for them.
I sometimes have to pinch myself that I am in this role but the squad has been incredible and have made my job so much easier.Kylie Hilder
You can’t be what you can’t see, and despite the strides made with representation of women in so many spaces including on the field as players as referees, in the administration of the game and as fans and volunteers, there is still a tremendous opportunity to involve more women in coaching.
New South Wales rugby league was one of 17 organisations to receive a grant under the ‘Her Sport Her Way’ strategy earlier this week.
This grant will assist the NSWRL to create more opportunities for women to coach and improve the standard of coaching in the women’s game through an education program called ‘A League of their Own’.
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“As a game we are realising that we need to get more women involved and give them more opportunities,” said Hilder.
“Now that NSW have taken the step of appointing a female coach, I have no doubt that there are other women aspiring for this position too.”
This Friday is a watershed moment for the women’s game.
It will be the first time that both teams have been led by a female coach with Queensland under the guidance of Tahnee Norris, the most capped Jillaroo ever with 32 appearances to her name.
It will also be the first time that an all-female on-field team has officiated in an elite NRL, NRLW or State of Origin fixture. Belinda Sharpe will referee, with Kailey Beattie and Karra-Lee Nolan on the touchlines.
Good friends Norris and Hilder shared a joke when they caught up a couple of weeks ago at the Origin launch but they are also fierce competitors.
“We haven’t spoken this week,” said Hilder.
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“We have that rivalry ourselves, we are both in coach mode and I’m sure after the game we will catch up.”
Hilder is one of the first group of current players to make that transition from player to coach.
My hope is that with Hilder making this transition it will push other players to consider doing the same. Amongst her current group of players, Hilder has already identified players she believes would make great coaches.
“I was only speaking with Glenn Hall earlier today about someone like Simaima Taufa and the way she speaks, her knowledge of the game and the way she breaks the game down to the younger forwards,” said Hilder.
“As well as Simaima, then there are players like Corban Baxter and Kezie Apps.
“There are some great leaders in this group and coaching is definitely something they should consider.”
Women’s Origin tickets are on sale via NRL Tickets. Supporters can watch the historic match from just $5 for juniors, $15 for adults and $35 for families