Wallaroos ready to play catch-up at Women’s Rugby World Cup

Metaphorical new dawns in sport occur more frequently than actual sunrises. Many are false dawns, overblown by journalists and fans hoping to bask in the golden glow of some fresh perspective peering over the horizon.

There is no need for verbose hyperbole when analysing the significance of this Women’s Rugby World Cup. In the five years since the last tournament, the profile of the game has dramatically altered. Four teams are fully professional. Three more are either professionalising or are bolstered by a handful of full-timers. England, New Zealand, France, Canada, USA, Wales, Italy and Scotland are among the preeminent sides or are teams on the rise, staring into the sunlight at the vanguard of this new age.

Off to the side, partially shrouded in the shade of amateurism, are the Wallaroos, a talented team undergoing their own transformation narrative, but one still playing catch-up with the best.

“We’re realistic about the situation in Australian rugby,” says Shannon Parry, the team’s captain, who won gold with the sevens team at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. “We know what we’re up against. All we can do is focus on ourselves.”

Long looks in the mirror have been necessary. In July last year, Dwayne Nestor, the then head coach, and his deputy, Matt Tink, resigned in ignominy.

Jay Tregonning, a physical education and health teacher at Illawarra grammar school in Wollongong who served as an assistant coach with the Wallaroos at the 2014 World Cup, was given the top job. Part of his remit was overseeing a cultural reset within the camp.

“That came easy, I suppose, because of my background as a teacher and my knowledge of the team environment,” he says. “But my primary job is to take the team forward and improve things on the pitch. We believe we’re close to competing with the bigger teams.”

His tenure got off to a positive start, beating Fiji 36-19 at Suncorp Stadium in May. But six losses on the bounce, including a 52-5 drubbing by New Zealand in August, means that solitary victory has receded from view.

Thankfully, there is more recent success from which to draw on. The 34-year-old Sharni Williams and Bienne Terita, 19, named at inside-centre and right-wing respectively for Saturday’s opener against the Black Ferns at Eden Park, became world champions when they helped Australia claim the Rugby World Cup Sevens title in Cape Town last month.

“The’ve given everyone a lift,” says Tregonning. “Young Bienne, has been electric and Sharni brings so much experience to our backline. They’ve raised the energy in the group. It’s always good to have a few winners around.”

That triumph has helped garner interest across rugby’s codes and Parry believes her sport is close to something special. “It’s a massive moment, we’re all so aware of that,” she says. “This World Cup is a landmark moment for women’s rugby.

“We’re also looking towards 2029 [when Australia will host the event]. We’re standing on the shoulders of legends who have come before, but we’re also laying down our own markers. We’re so conscious of the responsibility we carry.

“We’ve worn the indigenous jersey this year and we’ve started to better understand what it means to be a Wallaroo, why we play for our country and why we play this game. That was a missing piece for a while. Jay has been a big part of addressing that. We’ve got a great culture going on at the minute. Now we need to back that up with results.”

Despite the string of defeats, there have been some close games that might have gone another way but for the bounce of the ball or a different option taken. Since Tregonning has taken over, the Wallaroos have kicked 50% of their shots at goal. This, along with what Parry describes as “a struggle with putting in an 80-minute performance”, has hampered their progress. Rectify both of these areas of concern and they might yet achieve their stated goal of qualifying for the quarter-finals.

To do so they will have to beat at least one professional team. New Zealand look light years ahead, which puts more pressure on the games against Wales and Scotland. Not that Parry is thinking beyond the curtain-raiser in Auckland. More than 30,000 tickets have been sold, which will set a new attendance record for a women’s match.

“I can’t wait,” Parry says with a beaming smile. “It’s going to be a black-out but there’ll be a sprinkling of green and gold in the stands. My parents will be there and so will my partner. It’s going to be incredible.”