In a sport that is one of the most physically demanding and brutally punishing on the body, why would a woman in her late 30s, with a great playing record already to her name, choose to keep competing at the highest level?
For Louise Burrows the answer is simple.
“To play rugby for my country is the pinnacle and to be able to wear the Green and Gold jersey and stand beside your team mates that you’ve done all the hard work with.”
Burrows is a 38 year old teacher, mother of two and one of Australian Rugby’s veteran Wallaroos.
The life of an elite sportswoman is never going to be easy, but when you cast an eye over this woman’s weekly routine, it’s like being privy to the best laid out military strategy before a major campaign – which is in fact not that far from the truth with the National Championships around the corner and Wallaroos selection as the golden prize awaiting the favoured few.
Burrows plays club rugby for the Royals, is captain of the ACT Women’s team and is on the current extended squad list for the Wallaroos – the Australian women’s XVs side. She has played in three World Cups and is looking to make it to a fourth in 2017, at which time she will be 39 years old.
When the instinctive question of why arises, the answer is simple -- Burrows love rugby.
But women’s rugby in Australia at the representative level – unlike its Sevens sisters – is still trying to cope as a non-professional and under-resourced sport with a somewhat disjointed development pathway system.
So Burrows’ passion to continue to strive for the top of her sport means her week looks something like this: works four days a week as a PE and Health teacher plus weekend school sports as teacher in charge of hockey; has two young children who also do sport; a husband with his own business and who also coaches rugby and a current training regimen that sees her train twice a day as she prepares for the national Championships and possible Wallaroos re-selection.
Not training is NOT an option
Burrows acknowledges that it’s hard but as long as she is organised and with the help of a strong support network, it all runs fairly smoothly.
“I have to have really good time management because there’s just not an option of not going to training,” she said.
“I usually train before work - getting up at 5.30am - or I do school drop off and then do some training on my way to work; then I train after work as well. I’ll also fit in a sports massage during the week. It’s not just about being the biggest and strongest that I can be but it’s about doing all the little things right to stay on top of recovery,” said Burrows.
“As we get older the recovery is harder: so those things are even more important at my age. I can’t cut corners or take shortcuts because that’s when I will get injured or am out of action,” she added.
“I’m lucky to have family support, especially from my mother-in-law. If I didn’t have it I think I would still play rugby and still try to play at this higher level, but without support it would be very challenging,” she admitted.
Her strongest support comes from her husband Mick who is happy for her to continue for as long as she is able.
“He thinks if I can keep playing then why wouldn’t I; and if I can play at the highest level then perhaps I should aim for that because when you stop, it’s forever. He’s happy to motivate me and push me to do the things I need to do, to be in the best shape I can be,” said Burrows.
“He’s already got goals for me to go another World Cup after this next one,” she laughed.
Burrows believes she has gained a more philosophical perspective since having children. In her early playing days, she admits to being a bit of a stress-head, prone to the occasional meltdown before a game, but now she approaches it all with a more philosophical outlook.
“I guess it’s like the rest of my life - if I’m organised then everything else will go to plan for the day, but if things don’t go to plan then life will still go on.”
Goals are good
With Fletcher (8) and Georgie (7), having a busy life is something the kids have come to recognise as part of the bigger picture and of the goals their mother is trying to achieve.
“They’re getting to a point where they understand the bigger picture which is playing for Australia, but that all the little things I do help me to get to that point. They know that I have goals and they now have an understanding that if you set a goal, then you’ve got to work hard to achieve it – whatever that is,” said Burrows.
“They love that I’m strong. We don’t use the terms in our household ‘fat’ or ‘skinny’, it’s about being fit and healthy and strong.”
“And that definitely comes from rugby – from me playing rugby – because I need to be strong and I need to be powerful. I’m a front-rower, I can’t be small. So it’s just about them having an understanding that it’s a good thing to be strong and healthy,” she said.
Being a role model extends beyond her own children and into her classroom.
“I definitely try to be a good role model to show them if you want to achieve something it’s not just going to be handed to you, you do have to work hard for it, but if you set your mind to something you can achieve it. I think that’s a good thing for them to know,” said Burrows who teaches at Canberra Girls Grammar Junior School.
Good things come in small packages
Although born in Canberra she grew up near Albury, which she describes as AFL territory, although her father played rugby league, but definitely with no union in the picture. Positioned in the middle of three sisters, Burrows believes her success in rugby has come from her competitive nature which came to the fore as a child.
“I was always one of the smaller kids so I think I always had to work extra hard at things, but it gave me a strong work ethic,” she said.
“I remember running in athletics – cross country, 1500, 800m - and I don’t necessarily think I was a great endurance athlete but I hated to lose. So I always pushed myself to do the best I could and to be the best I could in sport. I’ve always had that competitive nature,” confessed Burrows.
When she was 15 the family moved back to Canberra. At 16 she played in a schoolgirls’ rugby carnival and never looked back, falling in love with the game – especially its physicality.
Burrows’ hard work and passion for the sport has brought her to this point. She is looking to do well in the upcoming National Championships which she hopes will lead to Wallaroos re-selection and the camp in October – all with a view to the Women’s RWC next year.
She has been more than ready to hit the pitch, longing for some game time and feeling she is better prepared than ever, having overcome some niggling injuries and now back into training fulltime, she is ready for a few big months ahead.
Last weekend she led the ACT Brumbies to victory in the Southern States Championships – a series of matches against the Victorian Rebels and NSW Country which were planned as practice matches in the lead up to the Nationals on June 24-26.
The hit-out bodes well for the upcoming titles in which the ACT was runner-up last year. For Louise Burrows though this will be the final and best opportunity to show national coach Paul Verrell she is still at the top of her game despite an impressive array of emerging young talent.
“There are always girls that are going to want your position but if I can play my best rugby and if I can keep getting better then hopefully I can retain my position. I’m working as hard as everybody else to try to make sure that my name is called out and that I’m selected."
"At the moment I’m actually the strongest I’ve ever been. I’m reaching those benchmarks and trying to get even better: hopefully at the end of the day that’ll be enough to get me picked in the team.”
Despite having to fend off young talent looking to push her aside, Burrows is pleased to see the increased interest and participation in women’s rugby.
“The game is growing thanks to Women’s Sevens being involved in the World Series where they’ve been so successful and now with the Olympics and the Commonwealth Games, I think that’s definitely drawing more girls to the game,” said Burrows.
But while Australia has risen to the top in Sevens, there is the undeniable fact that in this part of the world Women’s XVs rugby is lacking for suitable consistent competition, such as the northern Six Nations, in preparation for a World Cup campaign.
“I do think we are a bit disadvantaged in the southern hemisphere not having access and being able to play in those (types of) games. I made my test debut in 2001 and I’ve played 19 test matches whereas girls (over there) that also made their test debuts in 2001 (and they’re probably not playing anymore), some of them had played 100 caps for their country. So that experience at this level is a real advantage. We do need Test match experience. I think when you get to this higher level, that experience is really necessary going into a World Cup,” she said.
Despite this, for Louise Burrows, getting to Ireland next year with the Wallaroos squad is the ultimate goal.
“All I can do is play good rugby and the rest will take care of itself.”
“If I can represent my country at my fourth World Cup it would be truly amazing for all the people who have supported me. It is for me, but I’m also giving back to my sport, showing anything can be achieved if you do work hard at it.”