Meet the Leeds Rhinos teenager on a meteoric rise with designs on England halfback shirt

Caitlin Casey enjoyed a meteoric rise through the ranks to star for Leeds Rhinos last season and is now aiming to bag some silverware for the club in 2024.

FIRST-TEAM debut, Wembley appearance, Grand Final try-scorer, Young Player of the Year – all accolades any player would be delighted to have marked down on their CV. 

But how many players get to check them all off within their first season at the top level, and while still a teenager?

Step forward Leeds Rhinos half-back Caitlin Casey – who at the age of 18 found herself thrust into the limelight and handed the unenviable task of leading the then reigning Super League Champions around the field.

Having just been promoted from the Academy set-up Casey, who had also been playing with Swillington ARLFC (2021) and Oulton Raidettes (2022), thought she’d spend time with the first team, play a few games and take valuable knowledge from fellow half Georgia Roche.

But when Roche left to sign a five-year deal with NRLW side Newcastle Knights, that all changed and Casey went on to feature 16 times for the Rhinos in 2023, missing only the league defeat to Huddersfield Giants.

It was certainly a year to remember for her.

“It really was a big year for me,” Casey, who alongside her playing commitments is also studying PE at Leeds Beckett University, told Rugby League World.

“It was one I’ve been waiting for for a while now, but I didn’t think so much would happen so soon for me.

“I am just grateful for the opportunity I was given and looking back to this time last year I could never have imagined the year would go like it did.

“When Lois (Forsell – coach) first told me I would be moving up and having a training block with the first team I assumed I’d be sitting in the background, learning from two half-backs at the time and maybe getting a couple of Challenge Cup games in if that. It was more about getting me involved in that environment.

“But then everything changed and I played in just about every game, which was really unexpected. 

“Lois had had pre-season to get me ready to play so when Georgia left we didn’t really have a conversation about how things would change for me. At Leeds, the feeling is that everyone in the squad should be ready to play at any time, and that was the case with me.

“I had learnt a lot from Rochey before she left, and I am grateful for that time I had with her. We caught up at a couple of the Men’s internationals against Tonga when she was back to play against Wales and she has developed so much in the NRLW. We didn’t talk too much about the game, but I know she is always at the end of the phone if I need anything, which is great.

“It was a mad year with lots of firsts for me, like playing at Wembley. There are some senior players in the squad who have been playing for years and that was their first time there as well, so I feel really lucky to have had the opportunity to do that and also play in a Grand Final in my first year.

“Even though it wasn’t my favourite try, not many players can say they have scored in a Grand Final, so that is really special as well.

“It’s just a shame we didn’t get the results in those games, but hopefully we can get back there and change that this year.

“It was great to see what I had done was recognised with the Young Player of the Year award, and I really wasn’t expecting it. It was a lovely feeling to win it, but I prefer team awards to personal ones, so hopefully we can get a few of them this year.”

As well as being one of the stand-out performers across the whole league, perhaps one of the most impressive aspects of Casey’s sudden rise was the way she handled it all. She never appeared overawed by what was put in front of her, instead embracing any challenge that came her way. And it is this attitude that has earned special praise from Forsell, who predicts there is even more to come from the young star.

“It’s been a whirlwind for her,” added Forsell.

“But she has faced that responsibility head-on and that has taken a lot of courage and resilience from her. 

“I’m sure she’ll look back on 2023 with some really good memories of all the firsts she achieved. We didn’t get the results we wanted all the time, but there were still some big moments in there for her, like that kick at St Helens to set up the winning try and get us through to the Grand Final, and being a part of that first game at Wembley.

“She’s been tough and resilient, and she’s had to be because of how thick and fast those firsts came for her, but hopefully it was an enjoyable first season for her.

“It was a big ask for her, but she handled the step up really well. We were always really conscious that playing in such a key position was always going to be tough at her age and with her experience, but it’s good that she now has all those experiences under her belt and she can use that knowledge to build to an even better season this year.”

But it wasn’t just the step up to Super League that the now 19-year-old has had to get used to.

After growing up watching Bradford Bulls’ women’s side when they were at the very height of their game, Casey admits there were times just being around some of her team-mates has been more daunting than actually going out and playing at the top level.

“To play alongside Amy (Hardcastle), and now Shona (Hoyle) this year is great, especially after watching them playing for Bradford when I was little,” added Casey, who aims to eventually use her studies to go into teaching.

“I knew Lisa Taylor very well so I used to go and watch her play for Bradford when they were still the Thunderbirds. I was a massive fan and was always cheering them on from the stands.

“I remember going to one final and Lois, Amy and Shona were all playing, so it’s mad to think that I am now playing with, and being coached by, them.

“It was very surreal to be working them at first, but I am getting used to it now, and have been able to separate the players I loved watching from the people I now know.”

Despite all the praise received from her coach and the wider rugby league community, Casey won’t be getting carried away and knows that the season ahead is perhaps even more important for her than last year was. 

Her form has already seen her quickly elevated from the Knights set up to the full England National performance squad, but while she is eyeing up an international debut in 2024, there is another first she is also looking to tick off this year. And she is hopeful that working alongside the other top players from elsewhere in the game, can see her reach this new goals.

“I worked hard throughout the whole of last season, but there is still got lots to improve on,” continued Casey, who won the Under 16s League One Grand Final with Swillington and then the Championship Grand Final a year later with the Raidettes.

“I have always said that I will never never be the finished product and I know I improved as last season went on. But I also know there is still a lot I can be better at. 

“Lois wants me to step up and command the team around the field a bit more now and be more vocal in directing the team.

“We have also discussed that there needs to be a bit more transfer in my kicking game and be able to adapt that depending on who we’re playing. 

“I definitely feel a bit more comfortable ahead of this season now I know what my role is going to be and what to expect from Super League. But I have to avoid second-season syndrome now. 

“People know what to expect from me now and I need to keep working hard to live up to that. It does put a bit more pressure on when people know what to expect, but I think I’ve developed enough to be able to deal with that.

“I just want to get to all the finals again this year, but win them instead. 

“Missing out last year does give us even more desire to go out and put that right this year. It’s not a nice feeling to lose two in a year but we’re all feeling positive and we want to go out and win the treble.

“The competition is getting stronger and stronger so it’s going to be a tough ask for whoever wins, but hopefully that will be us.

“If it is, hopefully my game will continue to develop enough to get a spot in the England team, and the first chance to do that is likely to be the mid-season test against France. 

“If I can keep improving my game and doing what coaches are asking of me, hopefully I can put myself in the best possible position to do that.

“There is still lots to do before then, but all I can focus on doing my best and putting my best foot forward. 

“I have got my foot in door with England now, but there is still a lot to do to actually get a shirt.”

First published in Rugby League World magazine, Issue 494 (March 2024)

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