Mel Howard believes newly-minted head coach Kylie Hilder can guide the star-studded Central Coast Roosters to a New South Wales Rugby League premiership, even with all the changes for the revamped 2020 season.

The state’s premier women’s competition was handed a July 18 restart date by the NSWRL powerbrokers last month. The league has been trimmed down slightly as well; just seven teams are returning from the forced 2020 hiatus.

The Roosters — and Central Coast’s hefty cohort of Novocastrian superstars — is among them. South Sydney, Cronulla, North Sydney, Wentworthville, Canterbury-Bankstown, and Wests have all also come onboard for the shorter campaign.

Central Coast’s round one squad included a host of Newcastle stars, including Claire Reed, Anika Butler, Isabelle Kelly, Tazmyne Luschwitz, Olivia Higgins, Alicia Martin, Howard, Tayla Predebon, and Hannah Southwell.

The Hunter’s trio of young NSW Women’s Origin Under 18s starlets, Joeli Morris, Olivia Kernick, and NRL Women’s bolter Caitlan Johnston are also included in the Roosters squad led by Novocastrian rugby league veteran Kylie Hilder.

Kylie Hilder will still be leading the Central Coast Roosters heading into the 2020 season restart.

Howard’s team got off to a one-loss start in the 2020 season thanks to a narrow 16–10 loss to the Sharks at PointsBet Stadium. Caitlan Johnston crossed twice for both Central Coast tries, while Hannah Southwell kicked a conversion.

The 0–1 start to the season — and the ensuing monster hiatus thanks to the coronavirus pandemic — hasn’t shaken Howard’s faith in her Newcastle-stacked team though, or the fledgling Novocastrian coach at the reigns.

“Preseason and everything was actually really good. Our team was pretty cool, which was not unexpected [most played together in the CRL Newcastle outfit that won the 2019 title] but it was very new and so many different girls so I was pretty surprised at how well everyone got on,” Howard said of her 2020 teammates.

One reason for that, she said, was because the whole team had “a lot of respect” for Kylie, and what she’d already achieved in the world of rugby league before hanging up her boots following Newcastle’s state premiership triumph in August last year.

“[Kylie] played with us for a long time, so I think the girls have a lot of respect for her and the way she goes about things,” Howard said. “She kind of approached things a bit differently because she knows us and so we were getting those little one-on-one comments here and there so I think the girls responded really well to her.”

The NSW Women’s Premiership return also comes just days after the NRL Women’s 2020 season was locked in. Mel Howard played for the Roosters last season, after making her debut in the competition’s inaugural year with the St George Dragons.

The NRLW was originally tipped by rugby league insiders to expand to a six-round double round-robin competition for the 2020 season. COVID-19 put paid to those plans though, and the league will remain with its three-round format for another year.

“The aim was to go two full rounds this year, but they have stuck to one,” Howard told the Herald during the season-break. “Something is better than nothing, because nothing would have been a backwards step.”

The locked-in return of the NRLW also gives Mel Howard, and all the Novocastrian stars playing for the Roosters in the state league, another goal to aim for. There was a point where “no one knew if we would play again,” the Novocastrian said. Now that everything has been locked in, it gives club footy that “extra edge.”

Read more: What Australia hosting the 2023 Women’s World Cup means for Newcastle

Howard played alongside a group of her CRL Newcastle teammates in the Rick Stone-led Sydney side that finished fourth. Hannah Southwell, Bobbi Law, and Caitlan Johnston all featured heavily for the tricolours during their 2019 campaign. Kylie Hilder also played for the Roosters during their inaugural season two years ago.

The Roosters finished 4th in the NRLW 2019 season.

Those Roosters teammates, as well as all the Newcastle rugby league stars, have tried to keep in contact during the coronavirus lockdown, Howard said. Staying connected, she added, helped everyone’s mental health.

“I’ve tried to keep in touch with the Newcastle girls especially and check-in because I don’t think some people are used to looking at their own mental health so closely now they have so much time on their hands so it’s good to keep checking in with them.”

The Harvey Norman NSW Women’s Premiership is expected to be released later this week. The Chronicle will share the draw as soon as it becomes available.