In his series on players reflecting on their debuts for Australia, RUPERT GUINNESS speaks with Wallaroo flanker Emily Chancellor who took some convincing that she had made the Test team to play the Black Ferns in August, 2018.
Emily Chancellor is seated comfortably in the Wallaroos team bus. The squad is travelling from Canberra where they had been training five days at the Australian Institute of Sport, to Sydney.
It is Thursday, August 16, 2018. It should be a relaxing, if not straightforward bus trip; three hours up the Federal Highway … But then Wallaroos coach Dwayne Nestor, seated in the front alongside Wallaroos forwards coach Matt Tink, calls Chancellor up for a chat.
Chancellor makes her way down the aisle to join Nestor and Tink.
No sooner does she sit down with them, they break the news: she has been selected in the Wallaroos starting side to play the New Zealand Black Ferns at ANZ Stadium in Sydney in three days’ time.
Chancellor is shocked. Even though she had trained in the supposed run-on side in Canberra, the team had not yet been announced … Experience had taught her to not anticipate what unfolds in a training camp. In 2017, she just missed out on the World Cup squad for being “too small” as a flanker, a point she still questions. And for this 2018 Black Ferns Test in Sydney, she thought she had lacked the game time to impress selectors due to being sidelined by a Lisfranc injury for the 2018 Super W Season . At the Canberra camp, she said she didn’t read into who ran in what line-up from day one either.
As Chancellor recalls: “[Nestor] said, ‘‘We're going to put the starting team as we perceive it right now, and then everyone else will play against them. You'll get opportunities to put yourself in that. [We] will switch you in and out. “You will get an opportunity. But my challenge to the people who are not listed in that starting team is prove that you should be there.’”
Even when Chancellor looked at the team list and saw her name on it, she believed she was a part of a “psychological challenge” for a player not on the list, thinking: “There's someone in this group who they want to work hard, to prove that they earn it.” When her name was still the list the night before leaving for Sydney, she phoned her mum and said: “I don't know how long they can do it … the team might get released before I’ve found out I've been dropped. When are they going to put that other person into the position?’” Little wonder, when told she would start as No. 6, she was “gobsmacked.”
The rest of the bus journey transformed into a massive “emotional ride” for Chancellor.As the kilometres clicked over, her mind was awash with conflicting thought. “I went through these things like, ‘I haven't even visualised ever putting the jersey on. I couldn't even make myself think that far in advance,” she says. “Then suddenly you are sitting on the bus and you're like, ‘I'm going to get intercepts, I'm going to play amazingly.’ Then, ‘This is so embarrassing. I'm going to miss every tackle. They're going to run straight over the top of me. I shouldn't be here. They're going to be so much bigger and stronger. I can't do this.’ It was an emotional roller coaster. It was stressful.”
Certainly, her journey in elite rugby had by then reached it biggest high since it began in 2012 at Sydney University where she was studying and was on a netball scholarship. She turned to rugby after replying to a public email to trial for the Sevens program targeting the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio. When she did not make the Rio squad, she turned to the XVs game in 2015, and was selected in the Wallaroos training group from which the 2017 World Cup squad would be selected. Despite not making the final Cup squad, she persevered and was rewarded by being named in the 2018 Wallaroos squad and for her first Test against the Black Ferns on August 18.
The First Jersey, First Test … First Memories
Soon after the Wallaroos arrived in Sydney for the Black Ferns Test and settled into the Rydges Hotel at Parramatta, Chancellor was swept up in the frenetic pace of a Test week in which the reality of her fortune came when she was presented with her first Test jersey by Australian women’s rugby legend Shannon Parry who has captained the Australian XVs and Sevens sides. The occasion also made her think of those who has supported her, from family and friends to teammates who had pushed her in the selection battle.
“The moment is just after you've got it when you're taking a photo with a friend you've worked so hard next to … and [with] that jersey ….,” she says. “Those are the moments that stick in my mind. “
She recalls the Wallaroos squad photo shoot on the steps of the hotel foyer. She recalls how they returned their numbered jerseys to team manager, Amanda Ferguson, who would then assign the non-playing squad members – the ‘Dirty Ds’ - to hang them up in each player’s cubicle of the locker room the next day with other personal mementoes. The ‘Dirty D’s’ would even meet players’ pet needs; such as Chancellor’s: “I cannot have new socks. I will wash them [first] … I just cannot play in new socks. So, my washed socks were there [with] a bottle of water, Powerade and the match program.”
On this occasion, the Wallaroos-Black Ferns Test was a curtain raiser for the Wallabies-All Blacks clash. The crowd was not huge, but memorable for was who was in it. “To know all your friends and my family were there on that sideline you faced to sing the national anthem, that was the moment you're like, ‘This is really happening,’” she recalls. “I cried through the anthem. I was so pumped to play … there wasn't, ‘Am I going to be good enough?’ By that stage, when you step out on the field … I knew it was real. I was ready to play.”
Chancellor’s Test debut did not end with a dream win – the Wallaroos lost 31-10. But she played excellently and set up the Wallaroos’ only try by Alisha Hewett.“I was running on so much adrenaline,” says Chancellor of her debut. “I got a little intercept. I helped to score that try. I made a big cover tackle ... I felt like a headless chook, but an effective headless chook. I went out and was like, ‘I've got nothing to lose and everything to everything to gain.’”
Chancellor’s Test debut was the remedy for her past selection setbacks. “It gave me confidence that I have done the right work,” she says. “As someone who hadn't felt I had earned or deserved that position because I hadn't had it before, to realize my teammates respected me - and the coaching staff - was probably the biggest moment … and that feeling of really being part of something at the end of the game with the family and friends back at the hotel.”
What the Wallaroo Jersey Means
No sooner had Chancellor one Test jersey, she was chasing more. She played for the Wallaroos the next week in Auckland at Eden Park (losing 45-17) and finished the season as Wallaroo Player of the Year.
She now has six Test jerseys. Although, she would likely have more, as would all the Wallaroos, had COVID not forced a cancellation of Tests and the postponement of the 2021 World Cup to 2022.
For Chancellor wearing the Wallaroo jersey also represents progress in the journey rugby is making for parity in the game between men and women. “I've always looked at the Australian rugby jersey as something that the men do … to be a part of something that shows opportunity and equal opportunity is pretty special,” she says.
“To wear something with the Coat of Arms on it … you dream of it. “I'm proud to wear the jersey, but I was prouder to stand there and do something that all of the girls I play club rugby with love … to grow the profile [of rugby] and the image of the game that I have got so much from as a spectator and as a participant. That is pretty cool. “To stand there proud. Those girls watching … hopefully a little girl at home who could see you wearing a jersey and want to do it too.”
The seeds of her love of rugby were planted when she was a child in a rugby loving family. “Dad's a huge rugby fan,” she recalls. “We always went to watch Sydney Uni and Waratahs games. “I had never even considered that it was something that I could play. “It was just something I watched and I loved that the boys did.”
Her pathway to playing rugby originated her from days as netballer while she was studying at Sydney University. One day, she received an email alerting her to trial for the Sevens program. “There was a ‘pathway to gold’ promotion [aimed at] Sevens pushing for their first Olympics. I didn’t even know if I really want to play rugby. I was like, ‘I'm pretty happy with my sport. But I'd love to learn how to tackle someone. I'd like to just know I could …’ I had never even really played rough and tumble games with my brother in the garden.”
After learning to tackle, Chancellor thought: “This is a good game,’ [and because] I understood a lot of the rules from watching it a lot, I was further ahead than a lot of girls and progressed pretty quickly.”
The same year Chancellor was invited to train with the women’s Sevens program “to learn as much as I could.” She did not make the squad, but was grateful to have trained alongside the likes of Shani Williams, Shannon Perry and Chloe Dalton as she turned to XVs.
Chancellor first made the Wallaroos squad in 2015 after progressing from playing for Sydney University and NSW Waratahs in Super W. Their primary goal soon became the 2017 World Cup in Ireland. When Chancellor missed out on selection, her disappointment became her motivation. Being told she was too small, “was my biggest fire to be like, ‘Nah, that's not the way it happens.’ “
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Being in the Wallaroos Today
Under new coach, Jay Tregonning, the Wallaroos face a new future as they head towards the World Cup at New Zealand in October, 2022.
Chancellor has welcomed the announcement of the Pacific Four Series between Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States and to be held in 2022 before the World Cup is held.
However, as focused as they are on the tournament, Chancellor says the Wallaroos are also committed to increasing opportunity for the future in women’s rugby: “We want to influence a generation.
“I’ll do everything I can to help put that jersey in a better place. ”
Chancellor does recognise progress in women’s rugby; such as new measures in the 2018 Commercial Bargaining Agreement between Rugby Australia and the Rugby Union Players’ Association (RUPA) that came into effect on January 1, 2018 – such as pay parity with a base, entry-level full-time wage for men and women in Sevens rugby, a Pregnancy Policy that allows for maternity leave; and match payments and squad assembly fees for semi-professional Wallaroos.
There is something to said about being a semi-professional player, believes Chancellor, who works at Sydney University Sport as Club Development Manager and is also an ambassador for the ChildFund Australia that works at providing opportunities and education through sport. “I get to live two lives,” says the 30 year-old.
“I get to be educated and with work have this non-rugby family that people take seriously in a corporate sense. “Then I get to put my boots on and do what I love.”
Chancellor is excited by the proposition that Women’s 15-a-side rugby players may one day follow the men’s journey to becoming professional.“We're itching for the opportunity to live that expectation,” Chancellor says. “I know we’ll make the sacrifices, or that the right people will make the sacrifices to make it work.”