Patience the key as Super W bridges rugby's old and new worlds

Super W
Stu Walmsley.
by Stu Walmsley

If you’re a fan who still gets misty eyed about the amateur era, laments the breakdown of traditional development pathways and thinks modern rugby is predictable and robotic, then I’ve got just the game for you.

It’s called Super W.

Season two of Australia’s elite women’s 15-a-side competition kicks off on Saturday when the Brumbies host 2018 premiers NSW at GIO Stadium in Canberra and, while it’s growing up fast, the competition is currently at a fascinating tipping point between the old and new rugby worlds.

In the five-team tournament contested by squads from the four Super Rugby franchises and Perth-based Rugby WA, perhaps no club better typifies this balance than the Brumbies. 

The diverse squad, drawn almost entirely from Canberra clubland and surrounding regions of Central West NSW, the Riverina, Monaro and the South Coast, is indicative in many ways of the original men’s Super 12 team in 1996.

Over half that unfashionable crew were from in and around the nation’s capital, players like Joe Roff (Tuggeranong Vikings), George Gregan (Eastern Suburbs) and notorious front rower Geoff ‘The Duke’ Didier (Canberra Royals), testing the waters of professionalism on an ultimately successful mission to upset the traditional power balance of Australian rugby.

The same clubs have produced over half the players in the 2019 Super W squad; there are seven from Vikings, including 33-year-old skipper Michelle Millward, four from Easts and seven from Royals with a healthy smattering from regional towns like Orange, Wagga Wagga, Tumut and Goulburn.

Canberra embraced that 1996 squad; it was truly their team, the connection to the rugby clubs and the city beyond was indisputable and, at a time when fans in the nation’s capital are increasingly fickle about turning up to watch the professionals at GIO Stadium, the amateur Super W players still have a working relationship with the community.

They are employed throughout the Brumbies catchment area as teachers, prison officers, electrical apprentices, veterinary nurses, defence force specialists - they study at the universities, their children attend the schools - 40-year-old prop Louise Burrows has been pulling on an ACT jersey for longer than the franchise has even existed.

When Burrows debuted for the Territory, her Royals clubmate Geoff Didier was still working as a bouncer at now-defunct Civic nightclub the Private Bin - a second job which would no doubt comprise a breach of contract for current Brumbies and Wallabies prop Scott Sio.

The new dynamic at Brumbies HQ has posed some unique challenges for coaches and strength and conditioning staff - while the professional men and amateur women obviously follow different high-performance programs - David Pocock is still using the same facilities as rookie Goulburn prop Paige Penning, who only played her first game of 15s rugby earlier this month.

That’s not to say the men see their female counterparts as an inconvenience, in fact the opposite has been reported from all the Super clubs, a symbiotic relationship confirmed by Burrows.

“The boys here have been so great, and so welcoming, they’re really encouraging. I think they’d like us to be around a little bit more, but we’ve got to go to work during the day,” she says.

“On the weekend Scotty Sio asked when we were doing scrums so he could come down and help out. They genuinely want to be part of it.”

Pocock actually ran water for the Brumbies in their first ever Super W match last season against Queensland, a situation captain Michelle Millward admits was a little surreal.

“Yeah, he was giving feedback to players on the field, on the fly, and when he was rehabbing from injury last season he would come in at the time when we were doing our gym. Trying to get the girls’ attention when he was in there was quite difficult,” says Millward, who was sent off for the first time in her career against the Reds, the turning point in a match ultimately won comfortably by the visitors.

Just as the original Brumbies were determined to ‘stick it up’ the Waratahs and Queenslanders, as Didier so eloquently put it in the 90s, Millward’s squad are also trying to prove themselves against the same old foes this season.

The Reds and ‘Tahs were well clear of the chasing pack in 2018 and, off the boot of veteran fly half Ash Hewson, NSW eventually won an epic extra-time final at Allianz Stadium over their arch rival in what was a fantastic advertisement for the women’s game. 

The stronger club competitions in Sydney, Brisbane and even Perth mean the women’s squads at Ballymore and Daceyville are more experienced, better conditioned and have greater depth.

The ACT have been dealing with this disparity for years but, until now, it’s usually been on some sodden pitch in the suburbs during the hectic two-day National Women’s Championships.

“You were looking at 120 minutes of footy on the first day, and maybe 140 or so on the second, and your body was ruined,” Millward says of the Nationals, which doubled as the sole selection trial for the Australian team.

“In those days it didn’t necessarily come down to the best state winning, it came down to whoever had the depth in their bench, because you’d typically have a few injuries, and fitness level - who had the best conditioning.

“I think once we only had about five weeks notice of when Nationals was, then we’d have to work back from there - find a coach, find managers, find S and Cs (strength and conditioning staff) and set a date to get everyone together for a trial.” 

To prepare for this season Millward has been working with Jovi Ong, an athletic performance coordinator devoted solely to the Super W squad, to overcome a niggling hamstring injury.

“A lot of the girls who have come back from injuries now have the opportunity for good rehab programs - fast-tracking their progress to return to play,” 28-year-old Ong says. 

“Girls like (utility back) Sammie Wood and Shellie (Millward) picked up injuries in sevens and club rugby, but by observing the rehab program and having continuity, they’ve been able to get back on the field a lot sooner.”

The club’s new Super W coach Adam Butt was just starting his playing career at Canberra Royals when original Brumbies mentor Rod Macqueen was trying to make sense of his 1996 misfits, and the defensive specialist is facing a no less significant challenge in 2019.

As the likes of Australian Sevens coaches John Manenti and Tim Walsh will tell you, getting the best performance out of male and female athletes requires a vastly different approach, and Butt admits adapting to his first role in charge of a women’s team has been a baptism of fire.

“I’m not going to lie, it has been,” says the 40-year-old, who won John I Dent Cup titles as an assistant with Royals in 2015 and 2017.

“In terms of differences between male and female rugby players, I come in with the attitude that you’re not necessarily female, you’re a rugby player that happens to be female.

“That’s how we started, and I still believe in that, we’re here for a common goal and that’s to be better at rugby.

“But there is definitely huge differences - you can tell a male side to do something and they are more than happy to go off and do it. You tell the women’s team to go do something, and it’s what, when, why and how?

“They want all the information up front. That’s just their process and, in terms of becoming smarter players, I think that’s the way to go about it.

“But sometimes they don’t need the why, and they’re the times when they can see me get frustrated, when I just want them to ‘do’.”

One of these times was clearly during the final break of the side’s 18-5 trial match victory over the Melbourne Rebels in Albury a fortnight ago.

Butt’s side strayed from good early execution of their game plan, allowing the Rebels back into the contest, and the proud Canberran wants his team to display the tough and expansive style the Brumbies have been known for throughout their storied history. 

“It’s ruthless. That’s the word I’ve been using with the players since day dot. You need to be ruthless, and I believe that’s what Brumbies rugby is,” he says. “It’s owning the grey areas, it’s being so hard on the opposition that they know every time, there’ll be a player on top of them, and they’re going to be up last. 

“They’re the things I’ve been trying to instil here and I know that’s how the Brumbies franchise see themselves - just letting the opposition know it’s going to be bloody tough.”

Something else that’s bloody tough is Butt’s work-life-rugby balance, a challenge he shares with the majority of his squad. The Australian Border Force employee has taken leave for the seven-week Super W season and admits the playing group at Royals are usually happy to see the back of him when he flies out for a month-long work stint.

“It’s a balancing act, and I have a wife and three kids. My wife’s understanding, most of the time, but I don’t think we have dinner together until Saturday even when I’m home - and that’s about to change for the next six weeks,” he says.

Millward is a corrective services officer at the ACT’s prison, the Alexander Maconochie Centre, and lauds her workmates for helping her make it to training around 12-hour shifts.

“All my co workers they do all they can with shift swaps and getting me to places I need to be,” the 2018 Wallaroo says.

“I also think the work ties into rugby - if you walk around with your tail between your legs there, you’re not going to get any respect, and no one’s going to listen to you.

“You have to be quietly confident in what you’re doing, and what you’re saying, and I feel it’s the same on a footy field - especially with some leadership roles.”

In 1996, many of the Brumbies also balanced conventional careers with rugby as professionalism bedded down and less time was spent on analysis and training. 

Daramalan’s Adam Friend was a public servant, John Ross from Royals was a sparky, Ipolito Fenukitau of Queanbeyan worked as a labourer and Didier didn’t just work night club doors, he also sold roller doors, and still does.

While they are amateurs, today’s Super W squad have access to most of the aspects of the elite Super Rugby programs, but often the difficulty is trying to cram that theory and practise into three sessions a week.

As Butt points out - technology helps - especially with the monitoring of regional players, and the group’s desire to improve can be measured in the amount of text messages on his phone.

“Some days it’s going in to meltdown,” he says. “Women’s rugby has turned into a 12-month program and you can see that in the change in physiques, you’ll see it through the competition, and it’s just going to keep growing. 

“The academy (players) coming through, they have kicked the ball since they were four, and players need to watch their backs because next year there’s gong to be another crop knocking on the door, and the year after that….

“If you don’t get on the bus to learn, you’re going to be left behind.”

There’s no better example of the broad spectrum of experience in the squad than the fact rookie lock Grace Kemp is still one of Louise Burrows’ students at Canberra Girls Grammar, and the mentoring role of the pre-Super W players goes beyond just rugby knowledge.

“I think that’s what sometimes we’ve got to show the younger girls coming through - Rome wasn’t built in a day - we can’t click our fingers and just have everything,” Millward says.

“We’ve got to put in context where womens’ rugby has come from in the past 10 years, and how far it has come in the last two, especially.

“In years to come we will reach that professional standard. I think it’s been widely publicised through a lot of the players having interviews, saying give us time and the funding we need to show you this sport can be something amazing, but we just need that time to cultivate the young generation coming through and women’s rugby as a whole.”

While a collective bargaining agreement with pay parity is in place for the Australian Women’s Sevens squad, England’s Rugby Football Union were the first in the world to offer full-time contracts to women’s 15s players in January this year.

Australia’s Wallaroos receive payments for matches and time in camp, but players at Super W level are still completely amateur.

Rugby Australia reported a 20 per cent increase in female participation in 15s last season and also appointed Jilly Collins to head up the women’s game at Moore Park but, realistically, Super W players may be waiting until after the 2021 Women's Rugby World Cup for any kind of minimum wage.

Brumbies Super Rugby head coach Dan McKellar, a father of two daughters who will be at GIO Stadium today cheering on Millward’s team, echoes the skipper’s sentiments by preaching patience.

“I think it’s great for the game, what’s happening with Super W, I just think we need to be patient in thinking it’s going to be a professional environment in a hurry,” he says.

“We need to allow the grass roots to grow and have a really strong club comp and then it’s going to make the Brumbies Women’s team, and the Super W as a whole, a whole lot stronger.”

In July, 1994, the Canberra Kookaburras including Gregan, Roff and Didier recorded a landmark 44-28 victory over NSW (boasting 10 Wallabies) at Sydney’s Concord Oval in a result which provided great ammunition for those stating a case for the Brumbies’ formation.

No less than 15 members of the 2019 NSW Super W squad have represented Australia, and you can bet head coach Matt Evrard will be naming as many internationals as he can for Saturday’s season opener.

On paper, the Brumbies once again have the odds stacked against them, but all the players on the pitch today are pioneers on the road to professionalism, a status Louise Burrows might just achieve if she can keep passing her ‘hallway test’.

“When I get up on a Sunday after playing on a Saturday, and I can still walk up my hallway, why should I stop playing?”

The Brumbies women take on the NSW women at GIO Stadium on Saturday February 23, kicking off at 5pm AEDT, LIVE on Kayo and with a replay to be shown on FOX SPORTS.