From wearing the green and gold to directing from the sidelines, Alana Thomas has made rugby her life and the development of the women’s game, her focus.
She had her first run with the Wallaroos at the 2006 Rugby World Cup - Cap 88 - playing through to 2008 and then, as she puts it, was in the shadows with the squad until 2010.
After five years, Thomas was pragmatic about her lifespan as a player and the reality of being a woman in sport.
“When I first started playing, I thought I’d play for four years and then stop. I had to get a career, a paying career, so I always had that in mind,” she said.
“But when I was nearing the end, I decided I still wanted to be involved because it had been such a big part of my life, part of my identity.”
Having moved from NSW to Melbourne for work, Thomas decided to test out the coaching waters, starting at the Melbourne Rebels with some Sevens and was quickly drawn into the coaching pathway after attending a foundation course.
Thinking quickly turned into doing and Thomas found herself back in familiar territory.
“I got an opportunity to coach at the state program level under experienced coaches and got picked up for the ARU Development Pathway Program for Women. So I was again in the Wallaroos camp and I thought – yeah, I really like being back here!”
Working with the Victorian Institute of Sport in her day job returned Thomas to the world of high performance sport, creating synergy with her new found love of coaching.
This year, Thomas will be putting her Level 3 Coaching accreditation to the test in the new Buildcorp Super W series.
“World Rugby Level 3 is for the developing coach, the emerging coach program and then you’ve got the High Performance Coach program which is all about those people living at that NRC and up level,” said Thomas.
“You need to be spotted for that and that’s what I’m looking to. I want to be in that Wallaroo environment and I know I’m probably a couple of years off that.”
Thomas is also conscious of the importance of female coaches being role models in sport, not just the players.
“There haven’t been many females go through this pathway but hopefully now we see more of those who want to be a coach rather than a player, hopefully it opens the door.”
With coaching comes pressure, especially in a city which battles to give your sport of choice any of the spotlight.
As is the way for any coach in an emerging market, the days are long and any private time is rare and to be treasured – quality very much the focus over quantity.
“It does take a toll personally, but I’m lucky that I have a really supportive family base around me,” said Thomas.
“My partner is really supportive of what I do and probably the one that keeps me level headed,” said Thomas.
“If I have ideas and I need to talk to someone out of the environment, (she’s) really good. “
Thomas also finds solace and sanity in the small time she has away from rugby, spending it at home mowing the lawn, watching the news and walking her beloved new puppy.
“I suppose for me it’s the expectation that if I’m home – then I’m home – the phone goes off.”
Thomas is realistic about the job ahead of her with the Melbourne Rebels Women’s team.
“We’re going into pretty much every game as an underdog.
“We’ve really been focussing on the whole picture, but also just continuing to breakdown the core skills that we need and know that if we can do them well over and over again, it will allow us to play the game of rugby we want to do.
Conscious of the Wallaroo experience with which the other four teams are loaded, Thomas is focused on the broader development of her squad.
“We don’t have that expectation, so we can play freely and we can play our game. That’s something that is unique for us because I think having no big names has really helped. But they’re going to have some work to do.”
There is also a strong awareness with this new competition, that this is a new phase for women’s rugby in Australia and with that come the aspiration for her players to develop as elite high performance athletes.
“The thing for me is that expectation of what success looks like outside of results. And this competition I think is great for that.
“When I played we would have loved to have Super W, but we didn’t. We would have loved to get paid, but we didn’t. But we were still able to create history.
“I am cap 88 and I think they’re now up to 160. Hopefully we get up to 200-300 (capped) players and if we do, that’s great, it means we have created something with longevity.”
The underlying theme is the creation of a foundation in Women’s rugby for a new generation – something Thomas strongly believes in and is now a part of.
“That’s what I keep saying to the girls – ‘you are creating a future, you’re setting up the future.'"