WHEN it looked like the NRLW might be first on the chopping block when the COVID-19 pandemic hit back in March, Dragons coach Daniel Lacey held grave fears.
He didn't fear for Sam Bremner, Kezie Apps, or Jess Sergis. Felt for them sure, but it's not what kept him up at night as the prospect of the competition being placed on hiatus loomed.
Surely we could go one year without a women's comp? People not quite attuned the realities of women's footy beyond what they see on television thought as much.
Lacey's a rare type in women's footy. He was there coaching before anyone cared about it, kept going through the warm and fuzzy stage to the current state of genuinely elite competition. The thing about Lacey is, he's never forgotten what it was like back then. That's why, when it looked like it could all fall over, his fears were for those girls on the fringes.
With only four teams and limited NRLW contracts on offer, there's plenty who miss out. A lot of them only get one shot. Delivering the news that it won't be this year is least favourite part of any coach's job.
He's delivered that news to Jade Etherden on a couple of occasions in recent years, the 25-year-old having been in the pathways program through her years with Corrimal. It made the call this time around telling her she would get an NRLW contract the most enjoyable of the lot.
"I get the luxury of going to watch all sorts of footy and I enjoy watching girls improve," Lacey says.
"What I don't enjoy is telling people they won't make the squad this year. You try and give them feedback so they can get better but it's always hard.
"Jade's one of those girls who I always knew what she could do. I actually think she's got one of the best football brains around, we've just got to work out where to fit her in. I've said to her in the past her versatility has probably been to her the detriment, but the reason she made the team this year is because I needed that utility person there.
"She's an out and out Dragons fan, she's the type of girl who sits out there on the hill in the rain and now she gets to wear the jumper. That's the other part of my job that's spine-tingling."
Etherden admits that when Lacey's name came up on her phone as squads were being announced, she was expecting the same old 'not this year' pep talk.
"I really was expecting that, I knew two other girls who had gotten that call," Etherden said.
"I think they had 24 hours to name the squad and I got called there last minute and I was just stoked, it's unbelievable. It's been a lot of years now but I'm so stoked to be here.
"I actually didn't think it was going to happen, this week they played a little trick on me and told me I wasn' going to be playing and then called me in and said I'd be debuting.
"It means a lot to me, I've always been a Dragons fan as well. I've been playing in the Illawarra since I was four years old. I had a little [forced] gap when I was 12 but I've always been an Illawarra girl so it's amazing to be able to debut for the Dragons this weekend."
Her story on the way through is similar to a lot of her peers - a Woonona Bull from the ages of five to 12 before the rugby league door slammed shut. She joined the Cougars when the Illawarra competition kicked off, winning competitions in 2017-18 before shifting to the Sydney competition the last two years.
It was all in the hope of landing that elusive contract and, when she let herself think it, pulling the jumper for the first time. Had the competition not gone ahead would she have got her chance next year? Who knows, but the reality is most women on that fringe will only get one real chance.
It's why Lacey pushed so hard for the competition to go ahead this season. It's why the Bremners' and those of her her ilk did too. Perhaps unlike their male counterparts, the women's biggest stars are well attuned to the plight of their teammates on the fringe.
It's not so long ago they were there themselves wondering whether to keep pushing for that dream or not. In the scheme of things, the NRLW costs the game so little - certainly less than misbehaving NRL stars - but brings so much.
It's not something that should ever just be tossed in the too hard basket to save a few bucks.
What it also highlights is the Dragons need for a Harvey Norman premiership side. Etherden is far from the only Illawarra player to head north in the hope of advancing their careers in recent years.
It's been a fair exodus and, if the club wants to have any success at NRLW in the future, it's a flat out must. It shouldn't be all that difficult either given the CRL-MSWRL merger has brought all competitions under the one banner.
The Illawarra Steelers, featuring Illawarra and Group Seven talent, are the reigning Tarsha Gale Cup premiers and have been a powerhouse in that competition. The St George Dragons Tarsha Gale squad would also feed into a Harvey Norman side.
There'd be flow on benefits at the grassroots. The Illawarra under 18s competition has been building steadily, Dapto reached the grand final this year in its first season. The region's league tag stocks are also stacked.
Having a Harvey Norman side would allow those girls to make the jump to first grade in the Illawarra without the prospect of taking bona fide NRLW stars who could obviously maintain their Illawarra club affiliations.
The Dragons were granted an NRLW license based on its long and demonstrated history in developing the women's game. It can't afford to now be left behind.