Senior Wallaroos say outstanding rookies pushing them to new heights

by Emma Greenwood

Senior Wallaroos Sarah Riordan and Alisha Hewett say the next crop of players is pushing them to new heights as the standard of women's rugby continues to rise.

Riordan and Hewett have returned to their roots in the Hunter ahead of the Wallaroos' opening Test of the season against Japan in Newcastle on Saturday.

Riordan, who grew up in Raymond Terrace, about half an hour's drive north of Newcastle's city centre, missed the Super W season after undergoing a shoulder reconstruction at the end of last year.

She returned through club rugby before heading into camp with the Wallaroos, where she hopes to be a mentor for a new generation of players making their way into the national team.

"Probably just  using my experience (is where I'll be of most use)," Riordan said of her return.

"There's a lot of new girls in the team, so just using my experience that I've had from past Test matches  and I've played against Japan in the last World Cup.

"Just being that mentor for them on the ground will probably be the best role for me."

Riordan turned 27 last month and while she's closer to the end of her career than the start, the youngsters nipping at her heels are only motivating her to find a new level ahead of the 2021 World Cup.

"You always want to strive for more and get the most you can out of this sport," she said.

Sarah Riordan at a recovery session at Merewether Baths. Photo: Walmsley"Even though it's a long, long way away, (the next World Cup) is a goal that I have set myself. In the meantime we'll just focus on this year.

"There's a lot of new talent coming through which makes me work a lot harder, I'm getting a bit on the back end of my career, I suppose but it's good, it makes you work harder."

Thirty-three-year-old Hewett said the same.

"It's awesome to have all these youngsters coming through because they keep me on my toes," she said.

Hewett has been involved in the national program for eight years and said the standard had lifted noticeably since she started.

"Just the progression from where I started to where I am now, it's lifted immensely and it's great to see the growth and depth in the squad come through because that's just going to build us into a better team moving forward," she said.

Both expect a challenge from a fast Japanese team set to play a wide-ranging running game, with the games an outstanding opportunity to build combinations and work on tactics ahead of two Tests against New Zealand next month.

"I think these next two Test matches are really going to set the platform, particularly moving towards the matches against New Zealand," Hewett said.

"It gives us the opportunity to play with each other against another country and work out what our strengths and weaknesses are and them moving forward to work on those."

Both Hewett and Riordan come from a defence background and are excited at the opportunity presented by Saturday's curtain-raiser between the Australian Defence Force and their New Zealand counterparts.

"It's an awesome opportunity for the ADF to show what they can do for rugby as well," Hewett said.

"They've played quite a few matches this year so it will be interesting to see how they go up against the Kiwis."

Hewett, who grew up in Maryland, an outer Newcastle suburb before moving from the area when she was 10 and starting rugby only when she joined the army, said bringing the game to the area was good for the sport.

Alisha Hewett is excited to play in front of the Newcastle crowd. Photo: Walmsley"I grew up in a small country town, I didn't know what rugby union was, so to come to a place like this and have open training sessions and have a Test match against Japan, it's a great opportunity to inspire the young girl on the sideline who wants to get out there one day and do it herself," she said.

ADF captain Samantha McArthur said her team was "pumped" to take on the Kiwis.

"We've got a pretty big mix amongst all the girls. I've only been playing for about six months and a lot of the girls are in the same boat and then we've got a lot more experienced players as well that have been playing ADF for a while and playing in rep teams as well," she said.

"Obviously there's a little bit of  worry and excitement there (taking on New Zealand), it's the first experience playing an overseas team, so that will be really good for everyone."

And she hoped the ADF team and training camp with the Wallaroos could provide a stepping stone for her or other players keen to follow Riordan and Hewett into the national ranks.

"It's still early yet but definitely when you see people like Sarah and Alisha who have used army as a pathway, it's definitely something to look up to," she said.

The Wallaroos take on Japan at Newcastle’s No. 2 Sportsground on Saturday July 13, kicking off at 3pm AEST before a North Sydney Oval Test on Friday July 19 kicking off at 7pm AEST, both LIVE on FOX SPORTS, Kayo Sports and via RADIO. Buy tickets here.