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How Folkes' Jillaroos impact still lives on

In a 10-part series on some of women’s rugby league’s main trailblazers for Harvey Norman Women In League Round, Troy Whittaker recounts the contribution of former Jillaroos coach Steve Folkes.

 

Following their historic success at the 2013 World Cup, the Jillaroos needed someone to continue the growth and momentum at the highest level of the women's game.

The late, great Steve Folkes was that person, becoming the second coach with NRL experience to lead the Jillaroos from 2014 to 2016.

Former NSW State of Origin coach Graham Murray had set the foundations for greatness when he took the women's job in 2010, before stepping aside prior to the World Cup due to health concerns and tragically passing two weeks after the tournament.

Paul Dyer helped the Jillaroos lift the trophy for the first time and then Folkes, a NSW and Test second-rower who played 245 games for the Bulldogs and coached them from 1998-2008, assumed the reins.

"After that World Cup win, what happened was people started to take it seriously. People actually wanted to coach our team," current Jillaroos captain Ali Brigginshaw said.

Folkes, who sadly died from a heart attack in 2018 aged 59, proved an astute choice to build upon Murray's professional standards.

Former Jillaroos coach Steve Folkes.
Former Jillaroos coach Steve Folkes. ©NRL Photos

Jamie Feeney won the 2004 NRL premiership playing under Folkes at Canterbury and became a Jillaroos assistant coach in 2016 after the legendary mentor had moved on. He said Folkes's demand for hard work is ingrained in the women's team.

"He taught those girls work ethic, to push past that pain barrier or the uncomfort and get the job done," Feeney, who will coach the Roosters NRLW side this season, told NRL.com.

"I know that was part of his legacy at the Dogs and I think that it's part of the legacy he left with the girls as well.

"Before Folkesy, Graham Murray was there. Having NRL coaches brought that level of respect and professionalism for those girls because that's what those coaches are used to."

Brad Donald, who replaced Folkes at the helm and remains in the head role, spoke of his admiration for his predecessor and how his influence on the Jillaroos is still prevalent.

"I was the Queensland coach when Folkesy was the Jillaroos coach. He had us come in [to camp] a couple of times," Donald said.

"Having somebody like a premiership-winning coach coaching the Jillaroos just shone the light on the game.

"Both of these guys [Folkes and Murray], it shows the type of people that they were – willing to give to every corner of the game.

"They'd achieved at the highest level, but the women's game was evolving and they were willing to put their hand up.

"It certainly wasn't for money, I know that. It was just for the love of the game. Folkesy was the same and offered the team and the players everything that he had."

Highlights from Folkes's Jillaroos tenure included an Anzac Test win against New Zealand in 2015 that reclaimed bragging rights for Australia after the Kiwi Ferns pipped them the year prior.

He also oversaw the first two entertaining Auckland Nines campaigns, while Harvey Norman signed on as the first major sponsor of the national women's team in Folkes's time.

"Brad [Donald] and I and the team that are there now, we've definitely benefitted from those coaches before us," Feeney said.

"Most of the senior players that are still there with us were there when Folkesy coached them.

"We've learnt to build on that. And the level of attention to detail that you need at NRL level, the girls got a glimpse into all that. We're continuing to push that into the girls."

Brigginshaw was shocked to hear of Folkes's death given he was renowned for being incredibly healthy.

"I remember him laying by the pool and how fit he was," she said.

"When I found out about Folkesy, someone so fit … I just don't understand how that can happen to someone who trains so hard."

He may be gone, but Folkes is always remembered.

"One of the things that we do at the start of every camp is we acknowledge not just the land and the traditional owners, but the players and the staff that have gone before," Donald said.

"Unfortunately we've had the passing of two Jillaroos players in that time and two Jillaroos coaches, so they're always acknowledged."