Double duty: life as a prop and a cop
Heather Ballinger is a 33 year old police officer with the AFP based in Brisbane, but her most important role this week is as the veteran Prop in the Australian Women’s Rugby League team to take on the Kiwi Ferns on Friday.
The Jillaroos will be out on the park in Newcastle taking on Australia’s favorite foe (in nearly every team sport we play) and despite winning last year’s ANZAC Test, the Aussies will still feel they have a point to prove after losing the Auckland Nines series to the home team in February.
Ballinger says she started her footy career fairly late by today’s standards, not getting involved in League until she was 24. But she has not looked back from there.
With seven Test caps to her name and a member of the Jillaroos team that went to the World Cup in 2013, she believes she can still give her best at the elite level and is looking to add the 2017 Rugby League World Cup to her list of achievements.
“It comes down to I just love footy – I love League,” she told SBS Zela.
Working full time in a sometimes stressful job that involves a lot of shift work, Ballinger admits it takes dedication and determination to keep a workable balance.
“I don’t have much of a social life; it’s pretty much work, football, training, sleeping and eating -- (but) If it’s something that you really want, you’d be surprised how well you come up with a way of juggling it all to get that.”
Ballinger is aware of the younger talent coming through but appreciates it’s a sign of the growth and development of the sport for women remembering a time when the onus was very much on the player.
“I look back to a time where I had to pay whereas now you come into camp and you don’t have to worry about those sort of (things). We have developed a long way from there. More and more girls are coming on board because they’re also getting the right programs which are attracting them into it, which is great,” she said.
Coach Steve Folkes has added a good deal of youth to this Test team but Ballinger will nevertheless be out on the pitch with some familiar faces alongside her.
Not only will the Jillaroos be running out in front of a home crowd on Friday but the game is scheduled as a double header with the Men’s Test match against the Kiwis.
Ballinger has been pleased with the support and camaraderie shown to the women’s team by the Kangaroos in the lead up to these Tests.
“We come together and the boys come over and ask how we are, how we’re going so it’s fantastic. The boys have been really good.”
Ballinger said the best thing about Friday’s Test is that she gets to wear the green and gold and represent her country.
“You’re representing the Coat of Arms -- that’s what you’re getting the opportunity to do. That’s the biggest one for myself and for a lot of the girls because you are wearing that Coat of Arms which is a massive thing.”
Grass is green (and gold) for Foliaki
At the other end of both the age and experience spectrum from Ballinger on Friday will be a relative newcomer to the Jillaroos.
Vanessa Foliaki is a 22 year old Sydney-sider who will be playing just her second Test for the Jillaroos this week -- and she’s a Kiwi.
She moved to Australia from Auckland at 16 and into a form of rugby she had never played in New Zealand.
“I started from a Rugby Union background and when I moved to Australia I wasn’t even thinking about League, then I went to a carnival just to make up the numbers for a friend’s team. I got selected for NSW and then into the Australian side – into the Jillaroos – in 2014. So it hasn’t really crossed my mind to play for New Zealand to be honest -- I’m an Aussie now,” she laughs.
Her family all still live on the other side of the Tasman and despite some taunting she admits they will be begrudgingly supporting the Jillaroos this week – but ONLY the Jillaroos.
“Well they support the Jillaroos but they don’t support any other Australian team. I think they find it very hard … but because I’m playing they’ve said ‘we’ll support the Jillaroos but we’re not supporting any other’ -- which is fair,” she adds with a laugh.
— Jillaroos (@AusJillaroos) May 2, 2016
Foliaki said she has noticed the growth in women’s league even in just the few years she has been playing.
“I’ve seen a huge change in the numbers in NSW. When I first played League in 2014, there were only a couple of teams in the Sydney competition – seven or eight teams -- now there’s something like 14 teams and it’s just getting bigger because of the exposure through the Auckland Nines andthe All Stars. A lot of females are interested in signing up and joining us so I think the growth is going really well,” she said.
Foliaki is also very aware of the other young talent joining her in the team and of those pushing for representative opportunities into the future.
“I think the youth coming through is good. We still have the core experience there; the likes of Ru, Heather (and) Sammy Bremner are still there, but the talent coming through is pretty amazing. I’ve been to a few camps and the people that are coming in are pretty amazing and it just makes us want to work harder to keep our positions. Everybody’s so talented these days and none of our spots are really cemented. If somebody works harder, (they) can push their way into the team, but that’s good -- I think it’s really good.”
Having grown up playing Union since she was five years old, Foliaki has also dreamed of playing that form of rugby at the highest level.
“I would love to play for the Wallaroos. I’ve played rugby union since I was five back in New Zealand and that’s always been a dream to make it in rugby union; so if I ever got the opportunity to play for the Wallaroos then I would have a go,” she admitted.
But don’t be worried about her allegiance; she takes her elevation into the Jillaroos squad very seriously and feels very privileged to have been selected in the starting line-up to fill some big shoes.
“I get to run out in the starting line-up. It’s going to be my first time running out in the starting line-up and I’ve got big shoes to fill with Renae Kunst out with injury. She’s one of the most experienced players in the Jillaroos and I’m filling in her spot so I’m just really looking forward to having a go out there and doing my best and hopefully winning.”
How can you watch?
- The Jillaroos play the New Zealand Ferns at 5:20pm at Hunter Stadium on Friday.
- You can catch the game LIVE via NRL's Digital Pass.
- The Jillaroos match will be replayed on GEM at 10.15pm on Friday night AEST, following coverage of the men’s test.