The ex-Leeds Rhinos star shining in Australia – while studying in England!

Fran Goldthorp took a giant leap of faith when she left Leeds to join North Queensland Cowboys and play in the NRLW, but the move has definitely proved a success.

A COMFORT zone.… we all have one, and we’re probably all guilty of not stepping out of it enough, or even at all.

We probably all prefer to stick to what we know and what feels safe because anything else other than the norm might feel scary, unnatural and uncertain. But making that leap, no matter how terrifying, can lead to a whole new life – new discoveries, new places, new people, new experiences.

Not everyone is brave enough to do it, but that is not something anyone can accuse Fran Goldthorp of.

At the age of just 20, the young outside back packed up her life in Leeds to head to Australia to take up a professional contract with a North Queensland Cowboys side preparing for their inaugural season in the NRLW.

“It was definitely less daunting to make the trip back to Townsville this year than it was 12 months ago,” Goldthorp, now 21, told Rugby League World ahead of her second year at the club.

“I was just feeling excited to get back out there this time, all the pre-angst nerves were out of the way because I knew what I was going back to.

“Moving out there last year, of course there were nerves, but I was also excited. I think there was just about every emotion possible all rolled into one. I was thinking of everything that could possibly go wrong, but also what could go right, so I was anxious about it.

“But for me, I could never turn an opportunity like that down. You never know if it would come around again so I knew I couldn’t miss out on it, even if it meant moving away from family for part of the year.

“After the World Cup, I wanted a new challenge and wanted to push myself out of my comfort zone, so I just couldn’t say no to the move.”

Former Leeds teammate Georgia Roche had already made the move to Newcastle Knights, while fellow England international Hollie Dodd also hit the headlines when she became the first Betfred Women’s Super League player to sign with an NRL side after joining Canberra Raiders.

So Goldthorp certainly wasn’t alone in having to adapt to new surroundings, especially as the Cowboys had a whole squad to recruit, and for her that was a big benefit when it came to starting a new life thousands of miles away from her West Yorkshire home.

“I went out by myself and lived with a few of the other girls from the team, which was really nice,” she added.

“Because of where Townsville is, it was a long way from where the majority of the Aussie girls lived so a lot of them had to relocate too, which meant we were all in the same boat. We all had to get used to new surroundings, which did make things easier.

“It was also really nice to be in a new environment and broaden the network of the people I know. I have been able to create new relationships and experience new cultures. We’ve got a lot of different cultures within our team and it’s been amazing to have the opportunity to learn about different people’s backgrounds and what they have gone through to get where they are.

“I still speak to Rochey and knowing her as well as I did from Leeds made it easier to have some tougher conversations. We could speak about our emotions because sometimes it is hard to vocalise that to others who don’t know the ins and outs of the process you’re going through. I’d also catch up with Hollie when we played Canberra and it was just nice to know that other girls were going through it as well.”

After making the big move, Goldthorp had an impressive debut campaign in Australia, playing in eight out of the Cowboys’ nine fixtures and averaging 144 running metres a game – comfortably the most by anyone in the squad.

Her sole try of the season came in the 48-18 defeat to St George Illawarra Dragons before an elbow injury, which kept her out of England’s game against Wales in November, ended her season prematurely.

But both she and the club had seen enough to take up the optional second year of the contract she signed upon leaving Leeds Rhinos.

“Before the three of us [Goldthorp, Roche and Dodd] went we did wonder how we’d go,” admitted Goldthorp, who believes her experience down under can benefit England when it comes to the upcoming Ashes in 2025 and the next World Cup 12 months later.

“The standard in Australia is massively higher and their skill set and how they play, is a lot quicker, but I think I held my own and feel like I managed to make an impact.

“Now I am hoping for more of the same this year and try and get my contract extended again. I can see myself staying out here for the longer term and that would set me in a very good position for the next World Cup.

“Playing out here has made me more confident in my own ability. It has pushed me to want more and to be better. Because it is such a high-level competition, there are more players coming through that are of a really high calibre, that teams can choose from. So I know I have to keep working hard to stay at the top of my game.

“It’s a very physical league and that has allowed me to develop my defensive play as well as skills in general. It just makes you want to constantly play, and you know you’ll have a tough game every week.

“It was a no-brainer to stay – this is exactly where I want to be at the minute.

“But it will be nice to get back playing alongside the England girls later in the year. The focus there is on the next World Cup and hoping to do better than we did in the last one.

“Georgia, Hollie and I have got to help drive the standards now. We can bring back some of the skill set we’ve learnt out here and keep passing on whatever knowledge we can to the rest of the girls.

“I’m the sort of person that if someone wants a chat or wants some advice I’ll be there to listen and help out. I am very open to having those conversations and it is important for the younger girls coming through to know that there is an open level of communication available to them.

“I think us having the experience of playing in Australia allows conversations of what they’ll experience out there to be had.

“The Ashes will be a great test for us all, not just to see where we’re at, but to see where the Aussies are. We’ve not played them in a very long time so it’s exciting.

“Whatever the outcome of that next year, we’ll learn from it and it sets us in good stead for where we need to be for the World Cup the following year.”

As if trying to settle into a new life, new job and a new competition didn’t put enough on Goldthorp’s plate, she is also continuing to work towards a sports science degree… in England – Loughborough University to be precise, who have found a suitable way to work her studies around her sporting career in Australia.

“I have just sat my first-year exams so I am still waiting to hear back on that,” added Goldthorp, who hopes to put her studies to good use by doing some coaching with the Cowboys throughout this year.

“It is all done remotely, so it has been tough. Even when I’m back in the UK I’m living in Leeds so it’s hard to get into uni that often.

“But the support I’ve had from Loughborough has made things easier and I’ve even managed to split my year up. It means that when I am in Australia and playing I don’t have the workload or assessments to think about. Then in the off-season, I have a compact period where I just have to crack on and get on with my work. But I quite like it that way because means I don’t have to worry and stress about that when I need to be focussed on playing.

“Although we do get paid for playing in Australia, a lot of the girls still have jobs as well. I didn’t go down that route last year, but I am hoping to get something else this year. The visa I’m on only allows me to be paid by the Cowboys, so I’m hoping I can start doing some coaching with the club.

“But the money we get for playing means it can be a case of rugby first and then fit a job around that, rather than it being the other way round back at home.”

Leeds and England are never far from Goldthorp’s mind though and she spent much of the winter back home in West Yorkshire, before jetting back to Australia in early May to prepare for the season ahead.

But while on these shores she made sure she caught up with her former teammates and is confident the Rhinos have what it takes to put last year’s heartache of losing both the Challenge Cup Final and the Grand Final behind them and bring some silverware back to Headingley.

“It was lovely being able to catch up with all the Leeds girls and I got to see a couple of games before flying back,” she continued.

“I can see that the skill set and physicality in Super League has gone up since I left and I know that the girls just want to face more challenging competition more often.

“They relish the games against York and St Helens and want games like that every week rather than putting 80 or 90 points past someone else. It’s so much harder to develop your skills when you’re playing games like that, but that will come.

“But Leeds are looking really good this year and I think this will be their best year yet. They have got the team to bring some silverware to Headingley and I really do think this could be their year.”

First published in Rugby League World magazine, Issue 497 (June 2024)

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