Kaitlyn Mason didn't know if she'd ever take to the field again.
It was during the 2018 Group 11 finals series when Mason - then playing league tag for Dubbo CYMS - suffered a serious knee injury at training.
Two surgeries 10 months apart and rehab followed, before the COVID pandemic arrived to keep her sidelined.
When play did resume Mason quickly realised the coaching side of the game was her passion.
But the chance to the field alongside a number of friends and represent a Goannas club she has played such a key role with off the field has brought her back.
"I could have been back quicker but it was the love of coaching and giving back for those younger girls I was loving," Mason said.
"Guiding them and teaching them about the game we love has been my main focus and I didn't think I'd make a comeback but here we are."
Mason has played for the Wiradjuri Goannas in each of the first two rounds of the new Western Women's Rugby League season.
The Goannas under 18s coach wasn't expected to play in the round one win at Orange but the side was under strength and she had her boots with her so was a late call-up.
Ahead of round two's meeting with the Castlereagh Cougars at Dubbo on Saturday, Mason knew well in advance she would be lining up.
"It's good to be back. I didn't really feel the nerves the first game but I did this week," she said.
"I had the whole day so I was a bit nervous but as soon as I got out there I fell back into old habits and picked up where I left off.
"It's been a long time. It's a bit different to back then. The game has evolved after the last few years. But that physicality is there so it's a bit tough on the body after five years of no contact."
Mason has had a long involvement with the Goannas and has been a mainstay in the club's coaching ranks.
But despite that strong connection to the club she had never played a match in Goannas colours and the chance to do that alongside some friends and fellow foundation members like the Townsend sisters and Cassie Toomey was one of the main reasons she returned.
"The first comp was 2019 and I missed that so this was my first time pulling on the Goannas jersey and to do it with all the girls there now is special," she said.
"There's girls I played with when we were Group 11 all those years ago and now there's girls I coached when they were under 12s there so that makes it special and makes me want to give back."
Surprising her teammates with her ability after so long out of the game and showing younger players she's coached she can practice what she preaches were some of the highlights for Mason during the opening two rounds.
It's been successful for the Goannas too, with all grades winning on Saturday and the open-age side moving to the top of the table ahead of this weekend's bye.
But for Mason, the biggest success is seeing how much the competition has grown.
In 2018 when she represented a Group 11 tackle side there were four clubs playing seniors and under 18s but this year seven clubs feature in five grades from opens down to the under 12s.
The western area has also developed a number of players who have gone on to the top level - former Goanna Taneka Todhunter represented Parramatta in the NRLW this year - and that doesn't look like stopping anytime soon.
"When I was (last) playing we were just starting to establish the women's game in the west and for where it started it shows we have come a long way and there's the pathways and girls have the opportunities," Mason said.
"That development has come a long way. The start of it was there (in 2018) but now you can see it on the field.
"To get out there and feel it is good as well. The sport has come a long way in our region."
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