"Healthy competition" driving Naden from rehab club to Wallaroos starter

In just 18 months, Tania Naden has rocketed from outside the national squad into a starting jersey. Photo: Getty Images
In just 18 months, Tania Naden has rocketed from outside the national squad into a starting jersey. Photo: Getty Images

Tania Naden’s had her fair share of special moments these past 12 months.

Since September 2022, she’s debuted at a World Cup, played a Super W semi-final, started against the world champion Black Ferns, and won a club title with her beloved Uni Norths cin Canberra.

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Yet last week’s team announcement, at which Naden was named in the starting XV, meant something even more.

“Yeah, that was just my second starting jersey," Naden said.

"My first one was against the Black Ferns in Redcliffe and I sort of got that start due to Adi (Adiana Talakai) being injured, so that was more of a default I guess,” Naden said.

“But this one was really special – it kind of felt like I earned that jersey a bit more so that was really good. Adi really got around me when I got named in that starting squad last week and I really needed that from her – she was really happy for me and we just have that respect for each other.”

Talakai has been Australia’s preferred hooker through 2023 (starting four of the Wallaroos’ six Tests so far) but Naden is hot on her heels after earning another start in Saturday’s upcoming WXV1 clash with France.

It's a “healthy competition" that's driven both players to new heights in 2023.

“She’s all about helping and helping me. She’s played hooker for a while and has a bit more experience but her and Ash (Marsters) have been so helpful,” Naden said of Talakai.

“We just want each other to be better and we push each other to be better so it’s a really good environment to be in. We’re competitive but it’s not in a bad way – some people can hold their cards close and not help others but it’s not like that in our squad.”

Naden’s own journey from Uni-Norths rookie in 2018 to starting Wallaroos hooker is one littered with twists, turns, and countless hours on the sideline.

Consecutive ACL injuries saw Naden miss the entire 2021 season, prompting a serious mindset change around her rehabilitation.

“ACL rehabs are generally 9 to 12 months, but I think I spent about 15 months rehabbing my knee."

"I’ve already torn my ACLs on each side and after that third one I thought to myself I can’t do this again. I want to do this rehab properly.”

Since then, Naden has been injury free and her rise meteoric.

A breakout 2022 Super W season warranted selection for the Australian Barbarians v Japan clash, during which she showed enough to earn both a Players of National Interest (PONI) squad role and plane ticket to Christchurch for last year’s Laurie O’Reilly series.

Two months later, Naden found herself on debut closing out Australia’s 13-7 Pool A win over Wales at the Rugby World Cup.

“I didn’t get picked (for the Laurie O’Reilly series) and I wasn’t expecting to. I was just grateful to have been picked for camp and I definitely didn’t expect to be picked for a World Cup, let alone debut at one as well,” she said.

“It came in a funny way with both our hookers getting red carded in the Scotland game, but I just took my opportunity when it came.

“Now, I feel like I’ve not stopped playing rugby since the World Cup – we went straight into Brumbies season and club and we’re still going now.”

The 31-year-old is determined to finish 2023 on a high against France and Wales – and she’s not wanting for inspiration after a drought-breaking club title with her beloved Owls.

“That Uni Norths win was really special to me – we had a heartbreaking final against Royals in 2020 so it was really good to win a grand final with my club this year,” Naden said.

“It was at the death and we just won on the buzzer. We had the opportunity to take a penalty to win the game but I was so flustered in the moment and had so much adrenaline going on that I grabbed the ball, quick tapped, passed to our centre and told her to get it out to the wing who ended up scoring on the edge.

“We probably could’ve won it easier with the penalty, but I just wanted to spice things up (laughs). Maybe we just did it for the crowd – high risk, high reward., you know."


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