This is part of an ongoing series on NRLW players being published throughout the NRLW season.
Karina Brown grew up in Queensland watching the Brisbane Broncos and State of Origin. Her hero was Darren Lockyer. But the game was out of reach for her.
Despite wanting to pull on a jersey, there were no girls competitions on the Gold Coast.
“I used to love watching the State of Origin and the Broncos growing up. It was sort of like the only time I was allowed to stay up, you know, past seven o’clock was on State of Origin night or to watch the Broncos play,” Brown tells RLM.
“I fell in love with the game. I was totally in love with Darren Lockyer. I just thought he was the best player on Earth. And I used to wish that I was a boy because I really wanted to play NRL.”
But what was once a dream has now become a reality.
An inaugural member of the NRLW with the Roosters in 2018, Brown has played 10 games in the competition for the Roosters and Warriors to complement her nine Queensland jerseys and 11 Australian games.
After initially playing a season of rugby league in high school in under 12s, she was forced to give the game away when she turned 13.
Still wanting to be involved in footy, Brown settled on touch football until she landed back in the world of rugby league.
“It was just luck that someone that I knew at touch actually played for Runaway Bay when I was 21 and I just decided to go back and yeah, I felt like that’s where I belonged.”
Brown didn’t just belong on the football field. She went from relative novice at Runaway Bay in 2010 to representing Queensland later that year. A path she didn’t even know was available when she first signed up.
“When I was playing in 2010 I didn’t even know that there was a Queensland and an Australian team. So a month or two into starting my career again in rugby league and finding out that women actually playing at the elite level was pretty special to me.
“I could actually go and play for Queensland, you know, like, my hero Darren Lockyer.”
In 2011 Brown headed overseas and upon returning home in 2012 found there were no longer women’s teams on the Gold Coast. A discussion with Burleigh Bears CEO Damian Driscoll led the then-23 year old Brown to establish a women’s team at the club.
“I ran around, got sponsors, found some old jerseys in the shed and actually went around to some rugby union and touch carnivals. You know, I just found girls that would be interested in playing rugby league.”
Brown helped to build the team from the ground up with an eventual goal of beating the number one side Souths Logan, which the Bears did in 2015.
“I’ve done a lot of amazing things, you know, to actually nurture a team and build it up to become number one was pretty cool.”
Not only was she experiencing success on the field, but Brown was promoted at work and moved to Brisbane. Unable to continue training with the Bears, she decided to repeat the dose with the Easts Tigers. Once again starting from scratch and building the Tigers into a strong team in the BHP competition.
“I just decided why not try and recreate something special and give another set of girls the opportunity to play which was really great. We made some good connections with schools and started with like a bit of a beta program with some local clubs around there as well. So you know, obviously the East Tigers are in the BHP competition as well and going strong right now.”
2022 shapes as a big year for Brown. She’ll be challenging for another Queensland jersey later this year, while also pushing for selection for the Rugby League World Cup alongside two NRLW competitions.
Since returning to training and preparing for a heavily delayed 2021 NRLW season, Brown says she’s ready to go after months of preparing on her own.
“After Origin, last year, June 25, that was the last time we all got to play. So six months, and we weren’t even allowed to train together as a team and I really missed the camaraderie and just having your mates around all the time.
“Sort of got a bit boring training by myself in the gym, and all those skills sessions alone. So yeah, I’m just excited to be back out there.”
At 32 years old, Brown reflects on the pathways now available to girls and young women that weren’t available to her and how much that can improve the women’s game.
“All the opportunities that we have this year, obviously our two NRLWs, State of Origin, there’s a World Cup in October, November. So there’s just so many opportunities for girls at all levels.
“There’s so many young girls like us that are playing and it’s because of the pathways they have now which is playing through school and playing in the club system.”
She adds that St George Illawarra Dragons centre and Indigenous women’s winger Jamie Chapman is an example of the talent now being produced by the junior pathways.
“You know, I think Jamie Chapman got player of the game (Trish Hina medalist in the All Stars). But she’s very young, so that’s amazing that those girls have that platform now.”
Brown isn’t just looking at the current crop breaking into the NRLW, she also has an eye on the next generation of players. Those who will be coming through in 2031, and she has teamed up with ARIA-nominated vocalist Harlen to write a song called “She’s Got Confidence” which celebrates those girls who will hopefully be full time athletes in 2031.
“I’ve always loved music, but I don’t actually play an instrument or sing professionally but I did meet a musician in Harlen, which is who co-wrote the song with me about a year ago.
“We were just feeling really inspired about, you know, all the opportunities that young girls now have that we didn’t have growing up and we decided to write a song about what we hope for the next generation.
“The class of 2031 to just graduate full of confidence and believing in themselves and knowing that they can do anything and have the option to do anything. I’d love to see by that time for there to be full time contracts in rugby league, and money where they don’t have to do two things at once.”
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