Every NRLW team will have an Indigenous staff member in a senior leadership position for the upcoming season in a development that highlights the success of a pathways strategy that is being hailed as a blueprint for other areas of the game.
Dragons coach Jamie Soward, Eels coach Dean Widders and assistant coach Darren Borthwick, Knights assistant coach Jess Skinner, Broncos assistant coach Bo de la Cruz, Roosters physio Melinda Dennis and Titans strength and conditioning coach Jayden Chadburn are all Indigenous.
The strong presence of Indigenous coaching staff has coincided with an increase of players of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander heritage to about 15 per cent of talent in the 2021 NRL Telstra Women’s Premiership, which kicks off on February 27.
Jillaroos coach Brad Donald, who has been a driving force behind the Indigenous Pathways Strategy, said that the NRLW was aiming to match the participation figures at grass roots level, where 20 per cent of players are Indigenous.
“That is something we hope to do in the next year or two,” Donald said. “That is going to be expedited by us having coaches and staff that understand what it is like potentially to be an Indigenous player from a really remote region or a regional town.”
Skinner, Dennis and Chadburn were all given opportunities by Donald after a call for interest from coaches, performance managers, strength and conditioning coaches and sports scientists to identify a pool of Indigenous staff.
The inclusion of the First Nations Gems team, which was coached by Skinner, in the Harvey Norman National Championships for the first time last year exposed more Indigenous players and coaching staff to elite competition.
Many of those staff are now involved with the Indigenous All Stars team preparing to play the Maori All Stars on Saturday night at CommBank Stadium, including Skinner, who is assisting head coach Ben Jeffries, along with former Jillaroos forward Bec Young.
Jeffries is the Cowboys elite pathways coach and oversees the North Queensland Gold Stars women's program, which the club hopes will develop into an NRLW team.
“It is clear that the elite women’s game is leading the pathway process in this game for Indigenous coaching staff, and there are a lot more starting to come through now too,” Skinner said.
“I started coaching a local team in far west NSW and then I got picked up by the Jillaroos staff as part of their development pathway for coaches in 2018.
“In 2019 I had the opportunity to coach with Brad with the Prime Minister’s XIII and then continued my development through the All Stars program and their Indigenous pathways last year, which then led to me being head coach of the First Nations Gems.
“Hopefully one day I get to work alongside Ben and Bec as potentially the head coach of the Indigenous All Stars team.”
Widders, who is involved with the Indigenous All Stars men’s team, said a similar strategy was needed to increase the number of Indigenous coaches in the NRL.
“Brad Donald is responsible for what is happening in the NRLW at the moment with coaching, and I think he has got the blueprint at the moment for what we could do in the men’s game,” Widders said.
“Brad has worked hard with our Indigenous programs to really raise the bar, which was needed, for our players to be given a chance to play in the NRLW. He has worked hard with our coaches and set the bar high with that too.
“Now we have been able to identify that every NRLW club will have an Indigenous coach on their staff, which was unheard of a few years ago. That achievement has not occurred by fluke, it is down to the program that Brad has set up and the buy in he has had in the All Stars.”
After recognising the need to develop more Indigenous coaches, Donald said he had adopted a similar approach to that which had seen an explosion in female playing numbers.
“You can’t be what you can’t see,” Donald said. “We are trying to develop everybody, but this is something that hasn’t had enough focus on it. Since we have focused on it there are now Indigenous coaching staff with every NRLW team.
“We have just made sure that we have treated that like the growth for NRLW. We are developing an Indigenous Pathways Strategy.
“We will run performance conferences, we will run coaching workshops and stuff in the medical field so that we can ensure that we have got access to the best information for people to come through. We do this in the female space, and we will do it in the Indigenous space too.”