World Cup trailblazers of 1998 salute Wallaroos and rise of Women's Rugby

Wed, Oct 26, 2022, 11:48 PM
Jim Tucker
by Jim Tucker
Selena Worsley (second from left) singing the national anthem with the Wallaroos at the 1998 World Cup in Amsterdam.
Selena Worsley (second from left) singing the national anthem with the Wallaroos at the 1998 World Cup in Amsterdam.

Australia’s Rugby World Cup trailblazers of 1998 have applauded the Wallaroos’ role in taking women’s rugby to heights they could only dream of. 

Wallaroos legend Selena Worsley and 1998 World Cup teammate Bron Laidlaw agreed the “awesome” transformation in women’s rugby is being highlighted in the best possible way in New Zealand. 

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Both will be glued to Sunday’s action at Waitakere Stadium in West Auckland when the Wallaroos face hot shots England just as they did 24 years ago in a World Cup quarter-final. 

In 1998, flanker Worsley and fullback Laidlaw were just happy to represent their country on the world stage. On a patchy, secondary field. In front of a sparse crowd. In Amsterdam. With no television coverage for supporters back home. 

“To watch the Wallaroos on TV playing the Black Ferns in front of a sellout crowd at Eden Park in a stand-alone women’s Test was wonderful in every way,” Worsley said. 

“There’s been amazing advancement and visibility for women in rugby. It’s the polar opposite to what it was like in the 1990s.  

“For my first 10 years playing the game, it was the same, ‘Do women play rugby?’ and ‘Doesn’t it hurt your boobs when you tackle?” 

At 19, Worsley played in the Wallaroos’ initial Test against the Black Ferns in 1994 and 25 Tests overall. The same longevity in the men’s game would have earned her over 100 caps. 

After her initial World Cup campaign to The Netherlands (1998), she captained the Wallaroos to two more in Spain (2002) and Canada (2006). 

Those who watched her play witnessed the same relentless attitude that makes Wallaroos backrower Grace Hamilton tick. No wonder Worsley has admired Hamilton leading from the front in NZ with her powerful ball carries and fierce competitiveness. 

“Grace is just a machine with her workload and impact. I never see her anything but on,” Worsley said. 

Laidlaw dislocated her collarbone during the 30-13 quarter-final loss to England in 1998 but played on for a period as a gallant one-armed last line in defence. 

Beating Ireland, Spain and Scotland to finish fifth was a worthy debut World Cup for the Australians. 

“This month’s World Cup has got absolutely fantastic exposure. It showcases how far the game has come,” Laidlaw said. 

“I mean for rugby but also for women’s sport in general. As the saying goes, ‘If you can’t see it, you can’t be it’.  

“I just love seeing the enthusiasm that (fullback) Lori Cramer brings. Every time she is interviewed, she’s smiling. Go Lori!

“Having the whole tournament on TV means a lot when Australia is going to be hosting the World Cup for women in 2029.” 

Laidlaw laughed when recalling the kit worn by the 1998 side. 

“The size of the shorts made them more like baggy bloomers and some of the XXL jerseys didn’t fit the girls at all,” Laidlaw recalled. 

Anyone involved in the 1998 campaign also remembers the team’s “No.1s”, the formal skirt, blouse, blazer, stockings, heeled shoes and scarves for off-field functions.  

The team was in just that attire for their visit to a reception with the Australian Ambassador in The Hague. Pearl Palaialii was a strong-running prop in the Liz Patu mould. When music started filling a corner of the room, eyes turned. Palaialii had turned her fingers to the grand piano with the Ambassador’s permission.  

Worsley still remembers the exact moment she was bewitched by the Rugby World Cup and the notion she wanted to play rugby. 

Nick Farr-Jones and the Wallabies had just become national heroes in a far-off corner of the globe by slaying the All Blacks in the semi-finals and beating England in the final of the 1991 World Cup at Twickenham. 

“I was a student at Downlands College (in Toowoomba). Tim Horan was an old boy. He and Jason Little were choppered into Downlands and landed on the field,” Worsley recalled. 

“I remember thinking: ‘I want some of that’. 

“I had no idea that women could even play rugby at that time.” 

Sure enough, she turned up at Horan’s club Souths when a women’s rugby competition was first staged in Brisbane in 1994. 

It’s unsure whether she found “flanker” or the position found her. 

“I was told a flanker’s job was to follow the ball and smash people. That sound alright and I did that for the next 16 years,” Worsley said. 

“Rugby gave me a community. I loved it.”  

Selena Worsley after being inducted into the Queensland Rugby Hall of Fame in 2022. Photo: Brendan Hertel, QRU
Selena Worsley after being inducted into the Queensland Rugby Hall of Fame in 2022. Photo: Brendan Hertel, QRU

Worsley had high praise for the Stan Sport coverage of the World Cup. 

“The women are being seen in a natural kind of way that embraces their individuality. You feel a connection to real people not to tired cliches,” Worsley said. 

Worsley was never a cliché herself. When the 2006 Cup squad needed a lift in spirits, the captain organised a team karaoke session in Edmonton. She led from the front with a Cher impersonation and costume. 

Worsley likes the balance the Wallaroos have found in NZ and sees no reason why their best game of the season can’t be against the English. 

“I’d heard a lot about Bienne Terita on the wing. ‘BB’ and (centre) Georgina Friedrichs are both getting so much value having the maturity of Sharni Williams in the centres because that was an element missing earlier in the season,” Worsley said. 

“Ili Batibasaga is a veteran who has really settled into a game plan and her halves partner Arabella McKenzie has improved at the tournament.” 

Worsley gave rich credit to Joan Forno, the foundation President of women’s rugby in Australia and team manager for the 1998 World Cup. 

“Women’s rugby owes so much to Joan. She was the mother of women’s rugby in Australia,” Worsley said.  

Forno is admiring everything about the World Cup in NZ from her Sydney home. 

“Gosh, did anyone even know we were going to a World Cup in 1998? It’s fantastic to see the Wallaroos performing and to have a supportive naming rights sponsor like Buildcorp,” Forno said. 

“Back in the ‘90s, the Australian Rugby Union was told by the International Rugby Board that if they wanted more funding, they’d better start women’s rugby.” 

A job like that better suited the youth development department but it landed on Forno’s desk. She was the ARU’s financial controller but the most senior woman at HQ. 

“We had our hurdles to get off the ground and the sexist comments from different places but we did. I’m proud and part flabbergasted to see where the fresh, young and determined women in Australian rugby have helped lift the game because I didn’t think I’d see it in my lifetime,” Forno said. 

“It’s wonderful.” 

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