'I started bawling my eyes out': What Wallaroos debut would mean to Asako Ono

Womens International
by Emma Greenwood

The mere thought of making her Wallaroos debut against her country of birth on Friday is enough to bring Asako Ono to tears.

The electric halfback, known universally in rugby circles as "Digi", arrived in Australia more than a decade ago, armed with big dreams and little English.

Japan may now be a rugby-mad nation but there were few avenues for a 16-year-old Ono to indulge her passion.

Her parents eventually agreed to allow her to head to Australia where she linked with the University of Queensland club, learned to speak English and became immersed in the culture of the game she loved so much.

Asako Ono trains with the Wallaroos squad. Photo: RUGBY.com.au/Stuart Walmsley

The bubbly Ono was also embraced by the rugby community, where she was handed a nickname - Digimon, later shortened to Digi - learnt English so well she now has only the faintest hint of an accent and earnt a teaching degree which she now puts to use at Ipswich State High School, where she teaches health and physical education, Japanese and leads the girls' rugby program.

After briefly returning to Japan in 2015-16, when she finished her degree, Ono thought she would not be eligible to represent Australia until early 2020 but a change to the rules meant she qualified to represent the Wallaroos.

"I knew a 36-month consecutive stay in Australia would allow me to become eligible but when Thommo (national talent manager Adrian Thompson) came and talked to us I saw one (of the criteria) was 10 cumulative years," Ono said.

"I only found out at the start of Super W this year I was eligible in early 2019, so I was really stoked."

Asako Ono completes a recovery session with teammates at Merewether Baths in Newcastle. Photo: RUGBY.com.au/Stuart Walmsley

An invitation into the Wallaroos' PONI (players of national interest) squad followed and Ono was selected for the two-match Japan series, although she was not among the 23 players named for the opening Test in Newcastle last Saturday.

But if she is named on Wednesday for the second match of the series at North Sydney Oval on Saturday night, she knows it will be almost impossible to hold back the emotions.

"(On Saturday) at the anthem time, I literally started bawling my eyes out and I couldn't even sing the Australian anthem because I was in tears," she said.

"I've never sung the Japanese anthem growing up and the Australian anthem is my anthem now.

 

"But just hearing that sound of the Japanese anthem, it was just really emotional.

"It made me reflect on the tough times I had to go through, the reason why I came here and the opportunity I was given. I'm so grateful to be here."

The symmetry of making her debut against Japan has not been lost on the 29-year-old.

"I've thought about it so many times," she said.

"Japan is still my home and Australia is my home as well.

Queensland Women's XV scrumhalf Asako Ono. Photo: Rugby AU Media/Stuart Walmsley

"For me to have two homes and to play for one home against the other home, it just means so much to me.

"It goes back to why I started and the reason I came over here. I probably won't be able to find words.

"I have to work hard to get my spot, however being here, it's just amazing."

The Wallaroos play Japan in the second and final match of their series at North Sydney Oval on Friday, July 19, kicking off at 7pm and broadcast LIVE on Fox Sports, Kayo and via RUGBY.com.au radio.

Buy tickets here.