home Interview, Rugby, Super W A rebel like her: how a strong culture is driving the Melbourne Rebels

A rebel like her: how a strong culture is driving the Melbourne Rebels

The morning we’d arranged to talk, Melbourne Rebels co-captain, Meretiana Robinson was on a roof. Far from a damsel in distress story, it’s actually the quintessential women in sport story. Robinson is a roof plumber by trade who devotes her nights and weekends to rugby, playing for the Melbourne Rebels in the Super W. 

From rugby origin stories to the importance of culture, Robinson shares plenty in this interview with Siren, including the feeling of being a part of the Rebels’ history-making first win. 

Siren Sport. Super W Rugby. Meretiana Robinson.
Melbourne Rebels co-captain, Meretiana Robinson. Image: Melbourne Rebels

Siren: What’s your rugby origin story? How did you get started playing?

Meretiana Robinson: I’m from New Zealand; rugby is pretty much our national sport back home. So it was probably inevitable that I play some sort of rugby. I didn’t play when I was heaps younger just because it was classed as a boy’s sport so there wasn’t that pathway for girls. But I played a lot of touch rugby growing up. And that sort of led into full contact rugby. 

So my first experience was at high school because there was a school girls team and I was in athletics and did sprinting and jumping so [the] rugby coach sort of hit me up and said, ‘hey, come be on the wing’. And I got picked up just because I could run fast and that was my experience. And from there, I loved the game but again, there was no pathway. So I pursued other sports and rugby was sort of just a sport that I’d go to for fun. 

I just stuck with it, playing here and there until I moved to Australia about six years ago [and] I started playing again and did my ACL in the first season that I was here. So I had a good year and a bit off after that. And then I came back into the fold and I made the state team. At that stage there was just like a national competition. So it was pay your own way. They’d have sort of a tournament over three days and that was it. And then the following year is when the Super W started. And yeah, from there, last season I was co-captain and this season again I’m co-captain. So Super W’s been going for three years and I’ve been involved since it started.

What’s that Super W experience been like for you? Going from playing in community leagues to stepping up to this amazing national competition. What has that been like?

It’s been awesome just to see how far women’s sport has come and knowing that there wasn’t that opportunity growing up. Which is, like I did compete high level in athletics and, funnily, tenpin bowling. So I was used to sort of a high performance environment but not a high performance team environment. I really really love the environment, just a bunch of girls obviously they’re there because they also want to be playing this sport at the highest level possible. So it’s just good to be surrounded with like-minded people. And then obviously the coaches driving that high performance standard and just being at an elite level and having the people around you that push you to be the best that you can be, I’ve found it’s just so exciting.

“I didn’t play when I was heaps younger just because it was classed as a boy’s sport so there wasn’t that pathway for girls.”

And that flows on to the development of your game surely, having access to those kind of elite coaches and elite health supports like the physios. Does that then supercharge the development of your game?

Yeah, it does. And how I’ve developed as a player I think, within the three years, is just the IQ of rugby that I’ve got now compared to just three years ago. It’s so much more. Like I grew up playing in the back three, which is sort of like a wing fullback position to now playing in a playmaker role, which obviously isn’t easy. But I do believe it’s because of having the Super W experience and enabling me to have access to those high performance coaches has helped develop my game to be able to have a higher IQ and therefore be able to be in that playmaking role. So yes, definitely. Definitely helped my rugby.

You were a co-captain last year as well as this year. What has that been like taking that sort of leadership role within the team and the club? What’s that experience been like for you?

It’s definitely been a new experience for me and a challenging one. I’m not a very outspoken person and I’m not a very loud person. I’m normally quite reserved and don’t say a lot. But I think when I do say something, it’s something that I value. I don’t speak for the sake of speaking. 

Coming into Super W, I knew we had to be able to compete at a high level. And for me, as an older player in the group, I knew I had to step up—because girls were looking at me—and sort of drive the standards that I’d expect to see in a high performance environment. And I guess me stepping out of my shell and and trying to drive all the girls around me led to that co-captaincy.

It did come as a bit of a shock when I did get asked because it wasn’t a position that I envisioned myself in, it sort of just happened naturally. I evolved as a leader on the run really just yeah saying to myself, I need to step up here and I need to really drive everyone around me and make sure that everyone around me is performing. But not only that, making sure that I carry myself in a way that I expect others to carry themselves. So I’d never ask something of someone if I wasn’t doing it. It’s definitely been a new experience for me, a challenging one, but I’ve really really enjoyed the role both seasons

Siren Sport. Super W Rugby.
Image: Melbourne Rebels

You did mention this year was the third season of the Super W. From your perspective as a player, you’re right in the middle of it, how are you seeing the growth and development of the competition?

I think you can see it mostly with the Victorian team. Reason being is Victoria is not a rugby state, we are competing with other women’s sports in the state that [have] much higher profiles and gain a lot of interest so when you tell people in Victoria you play rugby it’s like oh is that the Melbourne Storm. It’s like no, that’s a different sport. No one really knows of rugby. 

So we went into the competition in the first season as huge underdogs. New South Wales and Queensland have obviously had high performance programs for quite a number of years so were always going to be I’d say the powerhouses. And we got beaten in the first game something like 80 something to six, like the score was ridiculously high—and that was sort of the trend throughout the last couple of seasons—but by the end of the season, we’d still get beaten by quite substantial amounts but the improvement was evident. We weren’t being beaten by quite so much and you could see combinations start to get together. And that’s just a reflection of the girls being in that environment where they’re constantly learning in that high performance program.

And then you come into this season and we’ve been a competitive side, apart from the one game against Queensland. But we actually got our first win on Sunday, which was International Women’s Day. And that’s the first win that we’ve had in the whole history of the club against the side that we lost 80 something to six in the first season. And there was another game as well that we only lost by three points. So I think when you see that in the competition, that the competition is getting closer, it shows the development of the sport probably across all the states but mostly in Victoria for us to be to close the margin by that amount. 

And it turns around into our club setup as well. The level of rugby being played at a club level in Victoria has improved because girls are going away back to the clubs and taking what they’ve learned from the Super W, from the Super W coaches into their own teams, which has really strengthened the competition. Which again, drives performance for when they do get to Super W or girls looking at the Super W and being like that’s where I want to play and doing more at a club level because they’ve now got aspirations of where they want to head with their rugby.

Let’s talk about that win. It has been a pretty challenging year for the team. But getting that first victory on International Women’s Day. I mean, you couldn’t script that. What was that like?

It was crazy. Like, I remember the ref blowing the whistle that it was full time and for the first couple of moments I was sort of in disbelief like wait, is it really over? Because it was quite a hectic finish to the game. Usually there’s a big siren that says that the time is up. So I didn’t actually hear any siren go, so I was waiting on the ref to be like, yep, that’s 80 minutes and then at 80 minutes if we had the ball we’re trying to get out. And they ended up getting the ball back and then they knocked it on and then the ref finally blew the whistle like yep that’s the end of the game. And it’s like, wait, I couldn’t quite believe that it was actually over, to be honest. Then when I did realise it, I was just so happy because it was exactly what we deserve. 

This group that we’ve got this year is something really, really special. And I believe so strongly that we’re capable of winning games and we let one go earlier in the season. And we just knew that we could get that one and the belief was really, really strong in the girls and it just drove us to work hard for each other through that whole eighty-two minutes that it ended up being. I was just really really proud and just thinking to myself what a long journey it’s been to finally be able to get there and get that win.

“Coming into Super W, I knew we had to be able to compete at a high level. And for me, as an older player in the group, I knew I had to step up—because girls were looking at me—and sort of drive the standards that I’d expect to see in a high performance environment.”

What does it mean to end the season that way, to end with a history-making win for the club, what does that mean?

It means a lot because it means that, not just for us to prove to ourselves that we can do it. But everyone else that sort of follows us or sort of sees a little bit of us but doesn’t really know and they see that we’ve won, we get attention. It’s always good to get that attention because it drives, it’s going to drive the standards in our game at the end of the day and drives the support that we have which is important for everyone else’s development.

And just kind of going into then the next season, having that stern belief that yes, we can actually win games, we’ve been able to prove it to ourselves, I think gives us a lot more confidence heading into a new season instead of starting at square one where it’s still like you’re still chasing a first win, let alone winning multiple games. So yeah, I think it’s hugely important leading into when we start the season again next year.

Let’s talk a little bit about the squad this year. There were a lot of new faces this year and a lot of young players too. What was that experience like, to have that many new players? How do you bring everyone together?

I think it was a really good thing having fresh new faces. I mean, every season we’ve sort of had a high turnover. It’s hard, I guess being in a team when you’re getting beaten by quite a lot, and it takes some kind of resilience to just stick with it and keep going on. So each season we’ve sort of been starting fresh and I went into the season knowing that we really, really needed to get the culture right. And we needed to create a really good culture. 

So that was a huge focus for me at the beginning of the season, straightaway getting the girls together and just doing things to try and and bring the group together like starting conversations and that sort of thing. Not necessarily big things, but just little things to try and get the group together. Annika Jamieson has been amazing, one of our girls. [We] sort of got together as a team and she sort of threw out an idea that she was like, hey, what if we create our own page? What do you think of a rebel like her? And straightaway, I loved it. 

It’s something we’ve been able to base our culture around. Because at training, are you training in a way where anyone can come down and see you train and say, I want to be a rebel like her. Are you training in a way that the person left or right to you also training says, damn, I want to be a rebel like her, she’s just smashing this drill or whatever. So it was sort of the basis of our culture really. When we set our expectations as a team, it was something that we based it around so our whole sort of culture is based around a rebel like her and and keeping it above the line. And because we were able to sit down and come up with a plan together, yeah, it really created a culture of sisterhood.

Definitely by the season, everyone’s sort of looking at each other as sisters. To have that feeling in such a large group of girls where everyone’s on the same page, and are driven by the same standards, I think is what’s really helped us be able to achieve those results. Because without that winning sort of culture, mindset yeah, it makes the job a lot harder on the field.

Siren Sport. Super W Rugby.
A strong culture helped the Melbourne Rebels secure their first Super W win this season. Image: Melbourne Rebels.

I do follow your Instagram page. And I have to say, it seems like such a great vibe coming off the team. It just feels like you actually genuinely like each other and you enjoy playing with each other.

It’s great. We haven’t had that in previous years, where we’ve had our own, our own sort of brand. It’s not really a brand but there’s something that the girls can identify with, like they belong somewhere. And I think that’s huge in women’s sport, to make athletes feel like they do have a place and they do have a place to belong, and they have something to play for. I think a rebel like her has really helped with that. Giving us a voice and giving us a platform.

Unfortunately no finals for the Rebels this year. So what happens now, do you go back to your community clubs? What does your offseason look like?

Yeah, so we’ll go back to our community clubs. I know a few girls will probably be having just a small mental, physical break from it all. I myself am taking a couple of weeks before I head back to [my] club just to refresh because it has been quite a long season. When you speak about starting end of October start of November and then training all the way through until now it is a long time and a large part of your weekly life. So I think it’s important to have that mental break. 

And then during the club season, the coaches usually do hold sort of like skill sessions on particular nights, which is optional for girls. It’s not sort of structured this is when we’re training kind of thing. It’s very much self-driven, if you want to be there, be there. So definitely when that comes up, I’ll be encouraging everyone that can do it to do it because it is something that is going to help your game at the end of the day and help the Rebels.

“This group that we’ve got this year is something really, really special… And we just knew that we could get that one and the belief was really, really strong in the girls and it just drove us to work hard for each other through that whole eighty-two minutes that it ended up being. I was just really really proud and just thinking to myself what a long journey it’s been to finally be able to get there and get that win.”

And help to keep that team connection up while you’re all playing at your community clubs.

Exactly. It will be good to be able to have all the girls together. Hopefully we get a lot of the girls returning next season. It’s always good to have new faces. But it’s also good to have some stability in the playing group, and not having to start from scratch every season, I think would be really helpful. And I think we’ve created an environment and a culture where the girls are going to want to keep playing and keep at it

I did want to talk to you briefly about the history of women’s rugby. There is a really long history of women’s rugby. We know that there were games in the late 1800s in the UK. And there was a game in Australia played in 1921 in front of a crowd of apparently 30,000 people, which is huge. How important is that sort of history for you playing today to think about where women’s sport has come from and where women’s rugby has come from?

I didn’t actually know those facts. It’s pretty amazing. You just sort of saying that gives me goosebumps that they’re able to do that, that long ago. And that’s how long the sport has been around. And the attention for it. That’s crazy.

I think about being young and how I wasn’t able to say I want to be an All Black when I grew up because I was a girl. And there wasn’t that women’s team that was out there. Like, there was a woman’s team but you never ever heard anything about it. And it wasn’t something you’d be like, ‘Oh, I want to be a Black Ferns’. People would be like, ‘wait, what?’ Like that’s not a thing. 

So I think for me it’s the fact that girls now, they can literally look at any sport they want, and there’s a pathway for them. So that’s something that’s really, really important for me is that the young girls coming through actually have that vision they can see women achieving great things and it’s like nothing is impossible. 

But it’s not just important for the young girls, I think it’s really important for the young boys to see that women can do the things that guys are doing. And I think when they’re really young, they just see us as rugby players. I was at AAMI Park after our game and a young boy came up and asked to get a selfie with me and I thought that was pretty cool. Like they didn’t care that I was a female. They just saw that I was a rugby player and that I played rugby. 

And it also means that when a girl at school says this is what I want to do, a boy isn’t going to shut them down because they see girls doing that every day. And it’s normal. So it’s like, ‘yeah, you go do that’ not ‘no, you can’t do that because you’re a girl, girls don’t do that’. So I think it’s important for both girls and boys to see us. I’m just excited in the years to come, what happens next for women in sport? Because we’ve come such a long way, but it’s still, as I said, a long way to go.

I’ve got one more question before I let you go. I always love to ask women who play sport this question because I’m always intrigued by what they tell me. What do you love about your sport, about rugby?

What I love about rugby is that it’s a sport that literally anyone can play it. It doesn’t matter about your size there is a position for everyone. So you’ve got your little half backs, which are the smallest in the team. And then you’ve got your props which are the biggest in the team. You don’t necessarily have to be an athletic fit type looking player to play rugby, it fits all different shapes and sizes.

And I think that’s something that’s really strong, if we can get rugby out there, is that girls of all different shapes and sizes can see, hey, I can play. There’s a place for me in this sport because there’s someone that looks like me out there playing. I have an opportunity here. So I think that’s something that that I’m really proud about with rugby is it’s truly a sport for all. It doesn’t matter your shape and size, there’ll be a position for you.

The Queensland Reds and Brumbies Women will meet this Sunday, March 21 in the penultimate match of the season. The winner of that match will play the NSW Waratahs in the Grand Final the following weekend. The Reds v Brumbies game will kick off at 2:30pm AEDT and can be watched live on RUGBY.com.au

Kirby Fenwick is a fan first and a writer, editor and audio producer second. She is the creator of the award-winning audio documentary, The First Friday in February and produces the regular segment, Voices From the Stands for Triple R’s Kick Like A Girl. You can find her on twitter @kirbykirbybee

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