Super W feature: How bush grit and 18-hour weekly commutes are driving the Brumbies

· Super Rugby
Stu Walmsley.
by Stu Walmsley

Growing up next door to an ex-Wallaby, Emily McDonald’s fate as a footballer was probably sealed before she even knew it.

The teenage Orange Emus and NSW Country playmaker has been selected in the Brumbies Super W squad ahead of the competition’s second season in 2019 and, if she achieves her ultimate goal of playing for Australia, Classic Wallaby and former Balmain Tiger James Grant will be more than partially responsible.

“I remember as a little kid, going over to Jimmy’s with his son Jack, and playing footy in the back yard or going out on the road and kicking up and down,” McDonald says.

“He was probably coaching me and I didn’t even realise it.”

There’s not much traffic in Bilton Place, making it perfect for street footy, but 19-year-old McDonald has become a highway warrior over the past three months as she balances an apprenticeship in Parkes with home life in Orange and six-hour round trips to Canberra for Brumbies training.

Thankfully, Emus teammate Jacky Lyden is on a similar journey, and their families, club and community are firmly behind their quest to make a mark on the national stage.

The duo are often chaperoned to Canberra by Lyden’s husband Marty, Emily’s dad Darren, or Emus clubmate and Wallaroos manager Amanda Ferguson.

“We’re so knackered after training, we eat our dinner while they’re driving, and then we fall asleep for most of the way home,” McDonald says.

A career netballer around Central West NSW and recent convert to rugby league with Orange Hawks and Western Rams, Lyden is at the opposite end of her career to McDonald, but is determined to overcome a knee injury and play a part in the second Super W season.

“We don’t get very many opportunities like this out here, so we’re doing everything to take it with both hands,” says the 37-year-old, who was thrilled to be named in the final squad.

“All the hard work, we did all the training they gave us to do, it was like reaping the reward. 

“It was a good feeling and I was excited but, at the same time, quite nervous too because we have to step it up again to make that top 23 for match day.”

Orange City legend Grant, who played four Tests for Australia in 1988 before switching to league, holds skills sessions every Monday night with the pair, and the trio have played touch football together since 2015.

“Jacky had never played rugby before, and we were just chatting about a few subtleties of the game, and I said; ‘well, let’s just go and have a run around down the park’,” 54-year-old Grant says.

“They love their training, they’re passionate about what they’re doing, and they’re really keen to learn.

“I think the coach just had to pick them because they were working their butts off - and the commitment they were showing, you’d think if they show that sort of commitment on the field, you’re going to have a great player.”

But this scenario isn’t unique to Orange - the final 30-player Brumbies squad for the second Super W season has a strong regional flavour - and is much more representative of the franchise’s catchment area than the Super Rugby men.

Tumut-based school teacher and former Wallaroo Michelle Perry returns for a second season, as does Wagga Ag College’s Harriet Elleman and Yass veterinary nurse Jess Howard, while Goulburn prop Paige Penning is a new addition, along with pacy winger Biola Dawa (CSU Reddies) and the pair from Emus.

Canberra’s outdoor culture and rural setting provide a softer landing than Sydney for NSW bush kids leaving home to work and study and, while they now represent clubs in the nation’s capital, many more of the Brumbies also grew up in the country.

Tuggeranong Vikings half back Remi Wilton honed her skills playing league tag with the Narooma She-Devils, fellow No. 9 Jane Garraway is another Wagga product, former Australian under-19 soccer representative Sammie Wood hails from Grenfell, Grace Kemp played junior curtain-raisers at GIO Stadium for the Harden Red Devils, prop Violeta Tupuola lived in Griffith until age 12 and fellow front rower Peta Cox moved down the Monaro Highway after high school in Cooma.

Former CSU Reddies player Claudia Obst was also a late addition to the squad, as reported by Wagga’s Daily Advertiser, and the achievements of these local heroes chasing a rugby dream are enthusiastically reported by local rags like the The South Coast Register, Yass Tribune and the Central Western Daily.

All of which adds to the genuine sense of ownership regional communities feel for the player, especially if they’re still based in the area, something Paige Penning of the Goulburn Dirty Reds feels every time returns to her club at Simon Poidevin Oval.

“The coaches at the Reds, Ash (Kara) and Rob Sheekey, they’ve been super flexible,” 26-year-old rookie prop Penning says. “They’ve been training the Reds in the preparation for our season but, on the days I need to work on something extra I’ll turn up when I’m finished at the gym, and the girls are really happy to do scrum practice or whatever I need help with.” 

Kara, a school teacher at Goulburn High, was a member of the inaugural Brumbies Super W squad in 2018 and her influence is evidence of the impact the competition is already having on the women’s game at a grass roots level.

“We set a goal for ourselves at the Reds that we wanted to get a 15s team for 2019, so we started training in September last year, doing lots of fitness, coached by Ash,” Penning says.

“The first Brumbies session I went up to I was really nervous, but it was almost the same as our Goulburn training, so she prepared us really well.”

Penning travelled to the open trials for the Brumbies squad in November with Goulburn teammates Ellen Anable and Sass Cudaj, along with about 85 other hopefuls.

After 15 years in basketball, a season with the Goulburn Stockmen in rugby league and some Sevens Rugby with the Reds she didn’t expect to make the final cut, and admits it’s been a steep learning curve in the countdown to the season.

“There is an unbelievable amount of technical detail in rugby that you just do not see from watching games, and that isn’t in league at all,” says Penning, who works in the electorate office of State Member for Goulburn Pru Goward.

“But I’m living and breathing it now, it’s the first thought in my head when I wake up in the morning, and the final thought in my head before I go to sleep at night.” 

Having grown up in Goulburn, Penning thinks nothing of the thrice-weekly commute up the Federal Highway to Brumbies HQ in Bruce, but the concept is getting a bit old for Michelle Perry, who has taught special education at Tumut High School for the past five years.

The 31-year-old, who played for the Wallaroos at the 2014 World Cup in France, drives to Gundagai three times a week where she meets the Wagga-based Elleman and Dawa, and the trio then car pool to Canberra.

“It’s full on. Maybe it’s just as well the season’s only six weeks,” Perry says. “It’s a huge commitment, but the passion’s there, and I guess the competition is growing - and you can see just after these couple of trial matches it’s already stronger than last year.”

Perry will continue to pilgrimage to Canberra post Super W to play with her club side Royals, but only on match days, and her Wagga travel buddies will be keeping it more local in the Southern Inland Rugby (SIRU) competition.

Both Elleman, originally from Bomaderry on the NSW south coast, and Dawa, who joined CSU Reddies while finishing school at Riverina Anglican College, both made the SIRU squad in 2018 and have been training together in Wagga all summer.

“Biola and I worked really hard over Christmas, we trained together every day for at least an hour, and we train on the Tuesdays and Thursdays in Wagga (with our clubs),” Elleman says.

“It’s lovely having Biola there this year, especially because we usually don’t get home from Canberra until about midnight.”

Dawa, who scored an impressive try in the Brumbies 18-5 trial victory over the Melbourne Rebels in Albury, was head-hunted from soccer by Reddies and Brumbies teammate Claudia Obst.

“After watching the Olympic Games, I’m like; ‘oh, that might be a good game, I might as well try it’, so I just turned up at pre season after taking to Claudia and loved it straight away,” the 18-year-old says.

“I like the physicality, the tackling. If you get angry on the field, you can just tackle and get over it.”

A host of new players and a younger average age are features of all five Super W squads in 2019, and there are also four new head coaches, including Adam Butt at the Brumbies.

A one-club man as a player and coach with Woden-based Royals since 1997, Butt has seen his fair share of kids from the bush in the Canberra competition, and is familiar with the unique qualities they offer.

“Work ethic. Commitment. I don’t get a text message saying we’re not going to make it tonight. I get one saying; ‘the road’s flooding, we’ll find another way through’,” the defensive specialist says.

“Toughness, as well. I don’t know what it is with men’s or women’s regional (players), they just have it, and you can’t have too many tough players.”

Butt is proud of the fact his squad is indicative of the Brumbies sphere of influence across the ACT and NSW, and is heartened the country-based players are making the extra effort to take advantage of the new opportunities Super W offers.

“Each player’s different - you can’t look past Biola’s speed, Emily McDonald’s skills are amazing…  

“If you’re willing to drive three hours (each way) a night - for the Orange girls twice a week and the Wagga girls three nights a week - that commitment’s gold.

“It’s also a good reminder to the players from in city to take a look over their shoulder, because the regional girls are coming.”