Victorious world cup coach Karley Banks has had to fight for everything she’s earned. When she was young, she realised she had the talent to play at an international level in rugby league and touch football, but had no team to play for.
Because she was a girl, she was told “you’re not going to make it,” by her school, her coaches, and everyone at her Catholic school.
“It’s an un-lady-like sport they told me,” Banks said of being knocked down just as her career was unfolding. “If I wanted to play at the level I knew I could play at, I had to build my own team. I wasn’t going to just lay down and accept not being able to play this sport that I loved, so that’s exactly what I did.”
The touch football coach assembled a squad of her friends, most of whom had never thrown a ball, let alone scored a try, and sat them all down for a lesson in the rules of the game. If she could build a roster around herself, no matter how fresh-faced it was, she could prove to everyone just how capable she was on the field.
“Honestly, I didn’t really know what drills to run, a lot of the stuff I ran through with my friends in the early days were just off the cuff,” she revealed to the Chronicle.
“That’s really where it all began for me, I had to teach my mates the game and I realised that, as much as I loved playing the game, I also loved seeing people develop their skills and grow as players, stars, and just people through the competition.”
But first, Banks had a playing career to excel in. As well as an international stint with the Touch Womens representative sides, Banks shone in a number of other sports. She had the chance to represent Australia in the Under 21s cricket side, and in 2002 became the 64th Australian Jillaroo in rugby league.
The Queensland, who was born in Toowoomba before relocating to Newcastle and the Hunter later in her life, had carved herself out a storied narrative across multiple codes, competitions, and had played at some of the highest levels imaginable. For her, however, the story was just beginning as she turned her eyes back to the white lines of the dugout, and the long evenings of coaching and teaching.
“Coaching was always a very natural thing for me, I have coached all the way through my life,” she said. “I’ve got a real affinity for skills, I’m a bit of a ‘skills doctor’ and a lot of what I teach is the really high-level stuff in the game.
“I did that for a while with teams and was beginning to make progress, but about four years ago I hit this invisible wall – so many of us know that so well – and I started to get shunted off to technical roles. I knew that I was better than that, but I was missing all these head coach and assistant coach assignments.”
Banks approached those that had shunted her aside, and told them the truth: “I am better than these guys you’ve chosen.” It was a brave move for the aspiring coach, and their response was, according to the former Jillaroo, “unsurprising.”
“It was frustrating feeling like the jobs were going to coaches I felt I was keeping strides with, but at the end of the day I couldn’t control whether they gave me positions or not,” she said. “I figured if I just focused on getting the respect of the player groups I worked with and focused on the process, they would eventually have to acknowledge I could do the job.”
Although her hard truths to the TFA High Performance panel didn’t reap the rewards she was hoping straight away, Banks was offered a chance to prove herself. She was told if she could go to the men’s touch competition and prove she had the mettle to guide them to the top, she’d be given a shot in the international realms.
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The “tongue in cheek offer” only goaded Banks into further action. Armed with the willpower of wanting to prove the world wrong, Karley took the helm of a Hunter-based touch side competing in the Vawdon Cup – the Doyalson Dragons.
Filled to the brim with touch players from Newcastle, Port Stephens, the Hunter, Lake Macquarie and Central Coast, the Dragons were a rag-tag outfit in the eyes of the Sydney competition. They travelled south every week to compete in one of the longest running sports cups the country has and brushed shoulders with the touch elite.
When Banks took over the Dragons, they were a side waiting for direction. They had been strong in the Cup but were looking for that spark to take them to the next level. Their new coach provided that spark and turned it into a fire.
The squad went on to win a number of competitions, including five titles in the Country Championships, and victory in the State Cup. Banks’ side collected a historic double in 2017, becoming the first non-metro team in the Vawdon Cup to lift the silverware.
Doyalson won Vawdon & Country champs in 2017, but became the first team to win the Triple crown in 2018 – Country, Vawdon & State Cups. Then, they did it again in 2018, defeating Parramatta 7-6 to go back-to-back in the Men’s Premier League.
The side claimed an iconic triple crown in the process, between the Cup, the Country Championships, and the State Cup. More recently, Banks coached the Hunter Western Hornets representative side to a National Touch League title in the permier division.
The selectors took notice. Banks was offered a role in Australia’s World Cup campaign, coaching the Men’s 30s. As defending champions, they would be an easy path to a world championship, and all the glory of being a World Cup-winning coach.
Or, the selectors said, the Men’s 35s were available. They were the only Australian team that weren’t defending champions heading into the 2019 tournament and had one of the most dangerous New Zealand sides in the world to beat if they wanted to lift the crown.
“The 30s would have been a cakewalk for me because there was no New Zealand team to challenge them,” Banks said. “When we spoke about the 35s, I was told “this is going to be the biggest challenge you’ve faced”, and everyone told me it would be impossible.
“I saw it differently. It was a chance, once and for all, to put a stamp on my career in the biggest stage, and in the biggest way. If we could get this history-making win over the undefeatable New Zealand side, it would be something else.
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“Even at Doyalson people would put this dot next to my achievements, and say things like “you have the players”, even if I had built the squad from the ground up. This was a team where I didn’t have the cattle at all, and it was like the movie Moneyball in how much the team had to play as a group rather than rely on stars.”
It was almost like a movie in how the tournament played out. Australia’s 35s and the defending New Zealand champions met in the grand final and were set to face down in the biggest match of Banks’ career. Then, a freak lightning storm cancelled the game and re-scheduled it to the next day.
It was one of the hottest days Malaysia had seen that tournament when the teams finally got out onto the park. Both teams were running under the beating sun and were playing a day later than they were supposed to.
Australia won 6-5.
“What they often say about female coaches is that “Women are too emotional, they can’t stay composed in the big moments,” Banks said of the one-point victory over New Zealand. “With the storms, the heat, and the impossible task, I didn’t shy away. I don’t remember breaking down once or losing my head. We got the job done.
“A lot of people say there are not many ways to break through the glass ceiling, and I feel like backing your ability and ignoring what other people say is one of the few. There were some dark days in the beginning for sure, when I just didn’t think I’d ever get to the end of the road. There just didn’t seem to be any light anywhere.”
Karley Banks spoke to the Chronicle ahead of her attendance at an Amy Shark concert in Sydney. It was her special reward for herself after the momentous World Cup victory, and one she said was “rather fitting” as a summary of her story.
“It really was like that before and after I showed them all, like Amy’s lyrics “Tell ’em all I said hi”,” Banks said. “I could have stepped down, or gone another way when they told me I wasn’t good enough, but I took the advice on board, spoke to my sister, and reinvented myself. Now I’ve shown what I can do. Now I can tell them all I said ‘hi’.”
Banks is now the assistant coach for the Newcastle Knights men’s touch football side, who began their 2019 campaign against the Eels last weekend at Mudgee’s Glen Willow Stadium. Her side claimed a 5-3 victory in front of more than 9,000 rugby league fans ahead of the St George Dragons vs Newcastle Knights blockbuster.
Banks’ Knights side next takes to the field against the North Queensland Cowboys on Saturday, June 8. They will play their first home game of the season at McDonald Jones Stadium on Saturday, July 6 against the Brisbane Broncos.