As the Gold Coast Titans prepared to enter the NRLW for the first time there were plenty of possible debutantes in their squad.
But perhaps none had waited longer for a crack at the big time than rookie five-eighth Grace Griffin. At 31 years old, many would consider the chance of them playing in the NRLW long gone.
However, the Titans five-eighth had experienced a long education in touch football representing Queensland while also playing in the Queensland Rugby League competition.
Born in Victoria but growing up in Wagga Wagga, Griffin continued her journey north seven years ago when she moved to the Sunshine State to study high school teaching.
It was in Queensland she met and teamed up with Brisbane Broncos legend and halfback Ali Brigginshaw who acted as a guiding hand, enticing Griffin to join her at Ipswich and Valleys in the BHP Premiership.
That partnership at the scrumbase resulted in Valleys winning the 2021 BHP Premiership grand final, and ultimately led to Griffin being scouted by the Titans for their inaugural NRLW team.
Like many of these stories though, the NRLW is the end of a much longer journey and the start of an exciting chapter, and for Griffin this all begins in Wagga Wagga.
The New South Wales country town that provided the game with the Mortimer clan can now lay claim to its first ever NRLW player.
“Girls playing rugby league wasn’t a thing”
Wagga Wagga is a major regional city 452 kilometres south west of Sydney that was once considered to be the capital city of Australia.
The Griffin family shifted there from Victoria and it’s where Grace received her footballing education.
Unlike her brothers though, it was touch football she took up.
“I’ve got two brothers and mum put both of my brothers into rugby league and I always wanted to play ‘cause I had to be out there every Saturday morning watching them.
“But there was really no option for me to play rugby league, obviously, because girls playing rugby league wasn’t a thing back then. So she put me into touch football instead and so I grew up playing touch footy.”
Rugby league, like it did for many women and girls, remained out of reach throughout the 2000s, especially in regional areas. The only places offering them rugby league were urban centres such as Brisbane and Sydney.
So for Griffin, it remained beyond a dream. As far as she was concerned, playing rugby league at any level was out of reach.
That was until she moved to Queensland for university. Living around south east Queensland, she was able to play local rugby league and found the transition easier than expected.
“Once I was up here, I found out that there was a girls rugby league comp up here, and that it was a pretty strong competition. So I kind of jumped at the chance to be able to finally play rugby league, and was, I guess, able to transition pretty comfortably from touch footy to rugby league because I had the background playing touch footy, which in terms of skillset is very similar to rugby league.”
Legend and a mentor
While Griffin was unable to play rugby league throughout her teens and early twenties, in Queensland the legendary Ali Brigginshaw was forging her career that would take her to the very top of the game.
So when Griffin arrived, Brigginshaw, despite only being one year her senior, took the relative rugby league rookie under her wing.
“I got picked up into a south east Queensland representative squad and it was through that, that I met Ali Brigginshaw and a couple of other girls who play a lot of rep footy,” explains Griffin.
“And Ali kind of took me under her wing and I ended up going out to play footy with Ipswich alongside Ali. I think that had a massive impact on my growth and my continued progression with my rugby league.”
When Brigginshaw left Ipswich to head to Valleys Diehards in Toowoomba, Griffin followed.
Not only could she call the Queensland and Australian half her teammate, but she was now being coached by NRL premiership winner and State of Origin halfback Scott Prince. Something Griffin says fast-tracked her development.
“Being around Ali for three years and then being coached by “Princey” (Scott Prince) who’s obviously a very highly experienced half as well… all these amazing rugby league minds around me who were able to educate me and continue my growth as a player.”
Titans come calling
In the middle of 2021 the NRL announced the NRLW competition would be expanding that year with three new teams, while the Warriors withdrew due to COVID.
The Gold Coast Titans were admitted alongside the Parramatta Eels and Newcastle Knights. In barely four months the Titans had to build a squad to compete while their local rivals, the Brisbane Broncos, had dominated the three previous competitions.
Griffin was given her chance by inaugural head coach Jamie Feeney who had been at the Roosters the previous season, after COVID had delayed the start of the 2021 NRLW season.
“I received a call from Jamie Feeney towards the back end of last year, um, asking me if I’d be interested in heading down to the Titans to join them for the inaugural NRLW campaign. I was so excited when he first contacted me. I didn’t really believe it was real.”
For the five-eighth, it was more than a dream come true given a semi-professional women’s rugby league competition didn’t really exist when she was growing up.
“I would love to say that it’s like a dream come true, but it’s almost beyond that. I think because, you know, when I was a little girl, as I touched on earlier, there was no rugby league for girls. So it wasn’t even something back then that, you know, I could possibly have dreamt would eventually be a reality for myself.
“So words can’t really describe how much this means to me. You know, I’ve grown up playing touch football, which is a hobby sport essentially, where you invest so much time, effort, and money into being able to participate in that sport.
“So to finally be a part of a system where it’s kind of, you’re not paying to be there, you’re being paid to be there, is something that I never thought would happen to me in this lifetime,” she says.
Big Sister vs Little Sister
In 2007 when the Titans entered the NRL competition, the Brisbane Broncos were the reigning premiers.
They were the little brothers of their longer tenured, very successful local rivals. In round five of that season, the two teams played their first derby, with the Titans springing the upset 28-16.
For the Titans womens side they were in a very similar position to their male counterparts in their inaugural season.
In round four they played the much vaunted, three-time premiership winning, undefeated Brisbane Broncos at Cbus Super Stadium.
They too defeated Brisbane in a shock upset 28-26. Unlike the mens side though, the NRLW team qualified for the finals in their inaugural season.
Playing against the Broncos is something Griffin says drove many of her teammates, even if she herself wasn’t involved in the match.
“I guess, with that rivalry between the Gold Coast and the Broncos being really built up because some of them are from the Broncos. Some of them also play alongside at club level.
“It’s a real opportunity to test yourself against the best when you get to play against them. I think it’s a bit of an honour to be able to step onto the field at that level and be able to play against not just Ali, but the likes of those girls that have worked so hard for so long to get women’s footy to where it is. I look at it as a privilege that I get to step onto the field at the same time as these girls.”
In her debut season, Griffin played four of the Titans’ six matches, winning two and losing two, with the Gold Coast going down to grand finalists St George Illawarra in the finals.
But it’s a promising start to an NRLW career that wasn’t even an option as fewer than five years ago.
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