Wallaroos forward Kaitlan Leaney believes seven months of “work experience” at a famous school of hard knocks in England has seen her timely return to the Wallaroos as a better player.
The Aussies have received a huge boost for Thursday’s Test against the New Zealand Black Ferns at Kayo Stadium following the return of Leaney, inside back Arabella McKenzie and backrower Emily Chancellor after their sabbatical with the celebrated UK Rugby club Harlequins.
The talented trio wasted no time throwing themselves into preparation for what is also the opening game of the Pacific Four series.
“It was incredible,” Leaney said of her Harlequins experience.
“The premiership over there is the best comp for women’s Rugby in the world, so we were excited to challenge ourselves and play with the best in the world.
“They play a lot of ‘eyes up’ and exciting Rugby, so we knew it was going to be really good for us bringing that back to Australia.”
The three Aussies reaped the rewards from playing 18 tough premiership games and immersing themselves in the Harlequins environment.
A handful of Harlequins players including Amy Ockayne, Lucy Packer, Lagi Tuima and Abby Dow played in the recent women’s Six Nations.
“Going to England we were essentially living as full-time athletes,” she added.
“We would have daytime training, then we would have gym and meetings as well as training at night. So it was a big day and we loved that.”
Leaney said set piece was the area of her game which really benefited from her time in the UK.
“Definitely scrums and lineouts, I think that’s where I improved heaps,” she said.
“If you watch the Red Roses (England’s national women’s team) play that’s where they are most dominant, so it was cool to go over there and have so much time to review and preview other teams.”
She said the coaches also put a strong emphasis in defence which was good for her as well.
Leaney, Chancellor and McKenzie haven’t missed a beat and were training with the Aussie squad just days after arriving home as they get ready for the clash with the world’s No. 1 ranked team.
“I’m really excited to be back, we missed the girls a lot,” Leaney said.
“Obviously the Wallaroos is our priority and we go overseas to become better players for the Australian program and make the Wallaroos better.”
Far from being daunted at the challenge of facing New Zealand first up, Leaney is looking forward to it, especially armed with the knowledge she picked up in England.
”It’s always a big clash against the Black Ferns,” she added. “We obviously know a lot of the girls because we have played them so many times.
“And I think the Wallaroos are in a much better place than where we were a couple of games ago,” she said.
“We have been working really hard and it will be good to get out there and see where we are at.”
Wallaroos head coach Jay Tregonning agrees with Leaney’s assessment.
“There were a few debutants against Fiji but the majority of girls had been around our program and got to know us as coaches as well,” he said.
“We are obviously aiming to improve on where we were last year - and to do that we need to win some games in the Pac Four. We are ready to rip in and have a good crack in this tournament.
“And testing yourself against the current world champions is a good indication of where you are at.”
Tregonning said it was a big boost having the talented trio of Leaney, McKenzie and Chancellor back in the squad.
“Obviously they have had a great experience over there,” he said. “I’ve kept in contact with them on a consistent basis, following their progress.
“Playing in the competition and being in a professional training environment for that length of time has been beneficial for their game for sure.”
Tregonning said the players would have gained as much from training alongside the other internationals in their team as they would from playing games.
The return of the three stars for this Black Ferns showdown has been opportune for the Wallaroos, especially following the recent retirement of legendary Wallaroo Shannon Parry.
Leaney is the type of unsung hero that every team needs and Tregonning described her as a workhorse in the second-row.
That was typified by an effort in the Wallaroos’ second Test against Japan last year.
“She nearly outran the backs to make a cover tackle to prevent Japan from scoring,” Tregonning said.
“She has really developed her lineout and set-piece skill over there (at Harlequins) so we are looking forward to seeing that.”
Tregonning said McKenzie had played a lot of flyhalf and inside-centre for the Wallaroos and also had some time at fullback with Harlequins.
“She has gained experience and confidence in those positions,” he said. “She brings back a really good skill set and that’s what made her stand out last year – her kicking game and ability to play footy was outstanding.”
Tregonning said Chancellor was a good on-ball backrower who can play six or seven for the Wallaroos.
“She has the experience but also a calmness and really good leadership ability that she displayed for us last year as well,” he said.
This tournament, which also features Canada and the US, has added significance for the Wallaroos as they look to qualify for Tier 1 of the new WXV competition.
Canada and New Zealand are already through after making the semi-finals of last year’s World Cup, along with England, France and Wales.
To secure their spot the Wallaroos must finish ahead of the United States.
“We want to be competing against the best in the world so Tier 1 is definitely where we think we should be,” Leaney said.
Lori Cramer will join the Wallaroos for the Canadian leg of the Pacific Four series after playing for Exter in the English Premier 15s grand final.