home Interview, Rugby, Super W For the love of the game: Melbourne Rebels coach Alana Thomas on Super W, coaching, and playing for Australia.

For the love of the game: Melbourne Rebels coach Alana Thomas on Super W, coaching, and playing for Australia.

Alana Thomas loves the camaraderie of rugby.

The former Wallaroo and inaugural coach of the Melbourne Rebels Super W team spoke with Siren about her love for the sport, her own playing days and how she got into coaching, as well as why professional development opportunities for women in sport are so crucial and why it’s so important to know where you’ve come from. 

Image is of Alana Thomas playing rugby. She wears the green and gold Australian Wallaroos uniforms. Her arms are stretched out and she looks down towards the ball she is about to kick.
Image: Supplied.

Siren: You were the inaugural head coach for the Melbourne Rebels in the Super W. In many ways, that meant you kind of had to start a team from scratch really. What was that like?

Alana Thomas: I’ve been coaching the women’s state side since 2015. But I suppose the change, being a Super rugby competition, where it was for a three month period of training was a little bit different. The playing group was probably the same as what we’d had in the state sort of set up in the previous years. But just trying to put together a program for six months, five months, was a little bit different.

So it was sort of a big learning curve and it was, there was a lot involved in the first year. We sort of knew what was coming—I knew it was coming in November of 2017—but it wasn’t confirmed until December of that year. So it was a really quick adjustment of this is what we have to do, this is what the competition looks like. It was pretty much [that] first year was sort of learn as you go and be very reactive. So that was probably the challenging part for me was that sort of having to react as to what was thrown at us as we got information coming through.

I suppose having worked with the state team though, you kind of had a bit of a head start there a little bit because you already knew a lot of the players?

Yeah, definitely. Like obviously, having those previous years you sort of knew the key players within the state. But it was also the fact that because it was now fully funded, the girls didn’t have to pay $1,000 to go away to a state tournament you could actually go and pick girls that probably were a bit sort of shy of coming and representing [their state] because they didn’t have the funds and they were good players that we probably wanted. So that was a really good thing that you could actually go out and target a few players and say hey it’s not going to cost you anything, we really want you to be a part of it. So that was a really good thing about it, is that you could actually get some of the better players. 

And money then not being a barrier to their participation and development.

Yeah, definitely. That’s been the thing, you know, and I didn’t realise how much they were paying. Because when I played in the early 2000s, I was in New South Wales and I was really fortunate that with NSW Country we only had to pay a levy. The most I think I paid was $300 to play and that got us a lot of trips and games and stuff. So when I came to Melbourne and they were paying $1,000 it was like ‘what you’re paying $1,000 to play’ so that was a big shock for me. I was like, as a player I had to pay but not to that extent.

So that was a really good thing that you could actually go out and target a few players and say hey it’s not going to cost you anything, we really want you to be a part of it.

It’s not really an unusual story for women in sport though is it unfortunately.

No, it’s not.

Let’s talk about the Rebels. It has been a tough couple of years for the team in terms of that success on the field. As a coach, how do you keep the team morale up and the players’ motivation up when they’re not getting the kind of results on the field that they probably expect and deserve and want?

The first two years were pretty tough, and it was just about trying to continue the development and keeping it fun for the players. And definitely, you know, the first year we sort of didn’t know what to expect. The second year was, probably for me, for all of us, the toughest with some of the results. We literally just sort of took away after the first couple of big losses and just went back and just went ‘Hey, what are we doing this for?’. We do it because we love the sport and we love playing rugby and we love being around each other. So we really made a big focus for the last two games about fun and enjoyment and that saw the players really enjoying their time there. And we tried to just take the results out of it and just set ourselves little goals in that year. Just about scoring points, playing good footy and things like that.

Siren Sport. Alana Thomas.
Image: Supplied.

Then this year was very much about the culture and the off field as much as the on field and I think we got it right this year. And I think the results speak for itself—bar the Queensland one obviously—but all the other improvements and the culture and you talk to the players, the culture is a big thing for us about enjoyment, having fun, knowing each other and being a part of the team environment that we created.

As you know, I spoke to Meretiana (Robinson) a couple of weeks ago and we spoke about that culture and how much of an impact that had on the team this year. How much were you involved in that, for example the Rebel Like Her Instagram account, which is super awesome. I’m a big fan of that. How much were you involved in working on that culture and developing that?

The culture was a big part of this year. You know, 2019/2020 I was basically contracted, I’ll put that in inverted commas, contracted for the two years and I wanted 2020 be about setting a really good culture and foundation. Then from that Meds and a few of the players like Annika Jamieson, set up this Rebel Like Her account to give us an identity and to push that out there. And they sort of started on that and then when we went into our camp, we sort of were doing the culture piece and what we wanted to achieve and the Rebel Like Her became something that everyone really resonated with and we wanted that to be the sort of I suppose the motto or that we want to be a rebel like her and then we built the culture around that and, you know, every one of the players had input into it. 

We set up little what we called growth groups for this year around having smaller groups of players with coaches. So rather than trying to talk to and get everyone’s input from 40-odd players, we broke it down into groups of eight with each coach and staff and that sort of drove the culture, allowed everyone to have a voice and the camp was the big starting point of that. And when we walked away from camp, I walked away going yeah we’ve really ticked off or achieved what I wanted out of the camp. It wasn’t about the rugby, it was about the culture and the relationships and getting to know everyone. And that two days was invaluable back in, I think it was the end of November, December out at Cerberus, that set up our culture. That was my whole purpose for this year was to get the culture on track.

Then this year was very much about the culture and the off field as much as the on field and I think we got it right this year.

The Rebel Like Her just really amplified it and really took it to another level, though I probably don’t want to take any credit for that because that was all Annika and the players and they really got into that and loved it and drove it. So it just amplified what we’ve done and really drove the culture for the year. 

How important is getting that culture and that sort of team vibe, team relationship, how important is getting that right for women’s sport?

I think it’s critical. And I think you’re seeing it in men’s sport now. I always refer back to, it used to be men’s, but in the old days, it was you had to perform to feel like you belonged. Whereas now, and particularly with the women’s teams, and I think more so now going into sport in general and the next generation of players coming through, is you have to feel like you belong to perform. And I think that’s a massive part, particularly with women’s sport, but I think going in all sports now. 

You look at Collingwood and what Nathan Buckley’s achieved and how he’s done it. The players need to feel like they belong and are connected to be able to perform at their best because if they feel connected and they feel a part of something, they feel a real true connection to it. I think that the on field stuff takes care [of itself] because everyone has skills and talents but that connection and that belonging really can drive you during tough times or tight games and things like that. So I think that’s a massive part of sport and in particular women’s sport because we are emotional beings as women. I still remember coaches saying, ‘Oh yeah, I got tears’. And it’s like, yep you’re gonna get tears. If you don’t get tears talking to female players then yeah, you probably haven’t coached. 

Siren Sport. Alana Thomas.
Image: Supplied.

The Rebels did have their first win this season, on International Women’s Day, I mean, you could not script that any better really could you. What was like that for you, watching that happen? That’s the result of so much hard work that you and the players have put in to finally get that result. What was that like?

Oh, it was pretty awesome. To be honest with you, it should have happened probably two weeks before that against the Brumbies. But it was something that I think we knew we were going to get this year. We were pretty confident internally that we had a really good group of players and that we’re going to get a win, our first win, this year and the culture and everything as we sort of were building through into trials and that we sort of knew it was going to come. We internally had it, we’re going to get a win this year. We knew that, we just had that feeling about it. 

But to go over to Perth, which for some of the girls they haven’t traveled, you know, they might have traveled to New Zealand but not many of them had probably traveled to Perth or been to Perth. So to go over there and to take on the WA side and to be in a tight game, it was a roller coaster of a game. I was up and down during the game and to see the players’ faces after the game, for the players that had been there from day one to then, just to see the tears and the emotion and the relief and the fact that they knew they could win and the belief that they finally had in themselves and actually were able to achieve it. It was a great day. As you said, International Women’s Day, our first win, our last game together [for the season]. It was yeah, it was pretty emotional. 

We internally had it, we’re going to get a win this year. We knew that, we just had that feeling about it.

It was sort of one of those moments of like we finally did it. It was just a really surreal feeling for me just standing there and just so happy for the players and you know, there might have been a few tears but it yeah, it was just a great, a great feeling for the playing group. And for everyone who’s been involved.

And really sets you up for a good start to next year’s season, coming off that win, a historic win for the club. So it’s putting you in a good spot to have a great preseason and get stuck into it next year.

Yeah, definitely. There have been a few sort of players from interstate that have missed out on squads going, you know, how do we get involved? How can we come to the Rebels, like what do we have to do and for me, that’s fantastic. That shows that we are on the right track and that players now are looking and saying, ‘Hey, I wouldn’t mind going down and being a part of the Rebels group’.

So, trying to keep the players connected now, obviously in the current situation, but being able to get this group back together and build on what we’ve built this year I think is going to be critical to keep that momentum. Because they’ve learnt how to win and they know they can win and that’s something that breeds confidence and then they now know they can go into next year that they can win and that’ll drive the standards and drive what we do for the next sort of 12 months and into the next season. I think it’s really imperative that we keep this group together and that’s the key.

Players will come and go and all the interstate players that we’ve got, we’re hoping to get back and we’ve already had chats with them in terms of what their plans are and just trying to keep them engaged now over the next six months till we get back together in November is the key.

I want to talk about you as a coach now. In 2017, you were the Rugby Australia Community Coach of the year after you took the Melbourne Unicorns—I love that name—to a premiership. That’s a pretty amazing accolade to receive.

It was a bit of a shock to be fair. I didn’t even know I’d been nominated until I got a phone call from the coach development officer saying ‘what are you doing on this date? You’ve won the award and we want you to come to the Rugby Australia Awards’. I was like, what? I didn’t even know I was nominated. So, yeah it was a big shock. 

…when I finished playing, I wanted to stay involved, because I wanted the next generation of players to be able to have that opportunity.

It’s something that [I’m] very, very grateful to have won and for the people that nominated me. It’s something that I love. Being an ex-Australian player, representing at that level and then when I wasn’t, when I finished playing, I wanted to stay involved, because I wanted the next generation of players to be able to have that opportunity. You know, I’m Wallaroo cap 88 and I want to make sure that we get up to 988, which is where the Wallabies are at. I want to make sure that we’ve got girls playing for generations and to do that you’ve sometimes gotta put your hand up and help that. And if I can help, you know, one girl, a hundred girls, young girls to play rugby and have that journey, then I sort of feel like I’m giving back to the sport that gave me so much and gave me some of the best times of my life in sport. 

So that’s why I do it. I do it because I love the sport, I love seeing players achieve whether it’s someone who hasn’t played a game playing their first game to international players trying to be better and continue to be at the highest level, that’s why I do it. And that award was really, really nice to win. I walk through the kitchen and it’s sitting on the bookshelf up there and you look at it and go, that’s why I do it. I don’t do it for that award. But you know, that’s just the recognition that sort of fuels you and goes yep you’re doing it for the right reasons. And this is, this is just recognition of what you’ve been able to do so far.

Let’s talk a little bit about your playing career. How did you get involved in playing the game? 

It was just university. I played pretty much every sport at school. Rugby league, touch footy, any sport I could. My report card said Alana’s grades would improve if she spent more time at school rather than on the sporting fields. So I ended up at uni and was playing netball trials and I was throwing balls like football passes and a couple of the rugby girls were watching and they said, ‘Hey, do you want to come down to rugby training on Tuesday night?’ I went oh I don’t have footy boots or anything and they said oh no, it’s just preseason and I went down there and loved it and started playing back in, I think it was 2001. I started playing rugby in Orange and yeah, I just enjoyed being in that environment. 

I got hooked on it and then that was how I started and I was playing for two years and then got selected in NSW Country to go to Nationals. And I thought like—I didn’t know about the Wallaroos—I thought that was like the bee’s knees. Like, I’m going to Nationals with NSW Country, how good is this. And then in 2005, [I] made the Wallaroos squad and 2006, I’m off in Canada playing in a World Cup and I was like, you know, in five years of playing here I am in a World Cup representing my country and yeah, I was just, I was in awe of the fact that I love the sport and I now got to represent my country. I never in my wildest dreams would have thought I would have done that. Like you look up to sporting stars but to do it and to do it in a sport I didn’t play as a kid. It was pretty special.

Siren Sport. Alana Thomas.
Image: Supplied.

You did play at the highest level, you played for the Australian team, the Wallaroos. That’s pretty incredible. What was that experience like?

It’s hard to put into words. You know, I’m a kid from a country town who just looked up to sports people and loved watching sport and to pull on the green and gold jersey and to be wearing it and singing the national anthem. I get goosebumps, I hear the national anthem now on TV or at school presentations or anywhere, and I just get goosebumps. Because singing it now, you’ve representated your country, you’ve been that person standing on that pitch representing your country. And it’s, you know, it’s a feeling of such immense pride that you have to represent your country and that you’re a part of the journey like this isn’t your jersey to keep but you’re a part of this story going forward. And yeah, it’s just, it’s hard to put into words. 

It’s just an immense sense of pride and passion, I suppose of representing your country and you know, you’re representing the sport of rugby on the world stage. But you’re also representing all those people that have helped you along the way on your journey. And yeah, it’s something that I’ll treasure forever with my jerseys and my caps and the memories, the videos. It’s just something that not everyone gets to do and that’s something that I take real pride in and realise that not everyone gets to do it so to be really humble about it and share what I can to make sure other people can enjoy the sport.

You then moved into coaching. Was that something that you had always planned or wanted to do? How did that come about?

I was playing for a couple years but I was doing a lot of coaching with the players that I was playing with, because we had obviously girls that have never played playing. So I was doing a lot of on field coaching whilst playing and when I sort of eventually decided I wasn’t playing anymore, I wanted to stay involved. And so the coaching piece was what came naturally to me. I just sort of stepped into that and was really fortunate at the time that we had a really good Coach Development Manager down here [in Victoria] that was really supportive and all the staff involved in Rugby Victoria were really supportive, helping me to develop as a coach. So I was really fortunate in that regard. And then yeah just coaching at club rugby for a couple years, and then I coached the 7s state side for a couple years and then the 15s state side. 

Because being in a male dominated sport going to these things, you’re usually the only female in them and it can be quite intimidating with a group of men there that have been around rugby for 20 years and they’ve done this and they’ve done that and you’re sort of coming in from a playing background with a couple of years coaching experience.

It can be quite daunting.

[They] were some really good sort of pathways for me and just learning off some really experienced senior coaches that I was paired up with in those programs and learnt off them as I went through. So it was probably just more, it was probably a natural pathway, but it wasn’t something that I’d said yep when I finish I’m going to coach. I started to fall into it at the end of my playing career and the playing position that I played in as a fly half you’re the playmaker for the team, you’re the driver of the team calling the plays and sort of how we want to attack and the like so it sort of probably came fairly naturally to step into coaching, going from that role as a player to then into the coaching, it was probably an easier sort of step for me.

Obviously you’ve had a lot of experience at the highest level as a player. Do you think that helps you as a coach?

I think so. I think it helps because you understand what the players are going through. And also, having played when the sport didn’t have this level of professionalism, I think it helped as well for those other pressures around work and things like that. So I think that helps a lot. And I think it also helps to relate to the female players, the women players because of the other things they’ve got going on. 

We’ve got mothers who are looking after their kids, looking after the household whether they’re looking after, you know, players that are looking after their brother’s kids, and the rest of their families you sort of understand what they’re going through and the responsibilities they have. I think that’s something that maybe some of the male coaches don’t have because they don’t understand because they’ve never had to do that as a player themselves or as a coach. They’re not the ones that are cooking the meals, washing the clothes, making the kid’s lunches, doing things like that. So I think that helps me. But I think from a playing perspective, just the pressures of playing, dealing with defeats, wins, losses, when they don’t have a good game, you sort of can relate to them quite well. And I think that helps me a fair bit in my coaching.

You’ve been a part of a few coaching development programs. How important are those kinds of professional development opportunities for women in sport?

They’re massively important to help grow women coaches within all sporting organisations. I was really fortunate to be involved in a few. Like last year was a big year for coach development for me in terms of going to Stellenbosch in South Africa with World Rugby. I think we took about 50 or 60 coaches—whether it was rugby coaches, strength and conditioning, referees—to Stellenbosch and did a women’s only development course. And that was massively important for the growth of coaches and strength and conditioning and match officials. Because being in a male dominated sport going to these things, you’re usually the only female in them and it can be quite intimidating with a group of men there that have been around rugby for 20 years and they’ve done this and they’ve done that and you’re sort of coming in from a playing background with a couple of years coaching experience. It can be quite daunting. 

Siren Sport.
Image: Supplied.

That was really massively important in my development, and then the AIS High Performance Women’s program was another step but it was also a step to network with other female coaches in high performance from other sports. From those two development pathways we are still all connected. We had a zoom call last week with the girls from Stellenbosch, we did it with the AIS coaches just to check in on each other but also it helps you bounce ideas off each other and it helps keep me going because we’re all facing very similar challenges. 

So massively important those courses that I’ve been on and massively important for women’s coaches to stick together and help push each other and promote each other. And I think that’s something that I’ve noticed with some of the AFL coaches that I’ve been in that group with that they’re always pushing each other to put them in the spotlight and helping each other rather than sort of going oh no, we’re competitors. We’re all about helping each other to grow and get that recognition and get—like what Siren’s doing—women’s sport out in front of people. Because there’s some really great coaches out there that probably get overlooked just because they just don’t have 300 games experience playing. So yeah, it’s really important that we keep developing women coaches as we do players.

Speaking of that player development, there are some developing and emerging player programs running in Victoria for women’s rugby. How important are those programs for the long term development of women’s rugby, particularly in a state like Victoria, which is not a traditional rugby state?

It’s massively important. The growth of rugby in Victoria, the majority of that growth is coming through females, through school girls and the like. So it’s massively important, that development pathway. We’ve got a couple of colleges and schools now that have rugby academies for the boys and the girls, and that’s massive.

All of a sudden, in the last sort of, I’d say five years, it’s just exploded. And it’s exploded and grown because of the fact that it’s visible. And it’s visible to the consumer. It’s visible to the public. And I think that’s massive.

We’re in a market that has got some of the biggest players you know, with AFL it’s got a really good sort of, I suppose foundation, particularly with the AFLW. You know, you’re seeing their girls’ participation grow as well and we’ve got to keep driving our pathways through that as well at rugby. I think that actually AFL has helped us with that. Because girls are playing AFL, but they can also go well, I can play rugby, my brother plays rugby, I can play. So it’s really important that we keep driving that and things like our elite pathways, our youth girls academy, our women’s academy, are key points in that. And then driving our youth 7s, we’ve got non contact touch sevens for girls coming through, we’ve got tackle sevens, we’ve got a really good junior program starting up. I think it’s a major thing, majorly important that we continue to grow at a school level and at a juniors level, because that’s going to be the future of the game. 

If I look at the Super W teams for the last two years, a lot of our players have been under the age of 21. And we’ve had, this year we had two 17-year-olds, a couple of 18-year-olds. We had probably half a dozen girls that were just out of school or a year out of school. So, you know, I’m seeing those players coming through with skill sets that some of the senior players [who] have been playing for five or 10 years, they’re probably not at that level. So it’s really important that we develop that pathway for players and what we’ll see is the players coming through are going to have a lot better skills, knowledge of the game and and it’s then just about coaching them the tactical side of the game because technically they’ll be really well skilled coming through.

You’ve been involved in women’s sport both as a player and as a coach. How have you seen that landscape change? In the last couple of years, especially.

It’s just exploded. And it’s exploded because of the coverage we’ve got. If I look back as a kid watching sport you’d see netball. There was soccer. You might have had tennis on TV. They were the main women’s sports that you sort of saw. But now we’ve got you know, WBBL, we’ve got AFLW, we’ve got the Super Netball, we’ve got basketball still there, we’ve got the W League. And now we’ve got Super W, NRLW. All of a sudden, in the last sort of, I’d say five years, it’s just exploded. And it’s exploded and grown because of the fact that it’s visible. And it’s visible to the consumer. It’s visible to the public. And I think that’s massive. 

It’s again one of those old sayings of if you can’t see it, you can’t be it. But now that we can see it, we’re seeing all these kids and it’s not just little girls, it’s little boys coming up on the sideline wanting to get autographs of AFLW players, Super W players, NRLW players. 

That’s what’s exciting for me. Looking forward to that, this is the start of that and we’ll get there. It’s just about continuing to drive women’s sports out to the public.

And this generation, you know kids born today are going to grow up in a hopefully great environment where it’s not men’s and women’s sport, it’s just sport and they can play whatever sport they want. They don’t have to be restricted and oh you can’t play after you’re 12, you can’t play footy because you’re too old now. That’s the exciting thing for me that this is the start of that. And that this group of players from my playing group of Super W, but all the others sports, women’s players, are going to be pioneers that, you know, it’s going to get to a day where they’re gonna sit back and say remember the good old days back in the early 2000s, when there was none of this but now it’s everywhere. That’s the exciting thing. 

I think that the more we can push women’s sport out into the public eye and arena it’ll grow and develop and I think this is the foundation for that and we’re gonna have to go through some of the pain and some of the things of, we only play four games of Super W it’d be great to play two rounds, get paid, be able to do this professionally. But I think as the sport evolves and as we grow and as we get more visibility, you know, we then get more sponsors, we get more people interested, it’ll grow and develop so that hopefully, in another five years it won’t be a conversation. It’ll just be these players are Super W players. They’re paid to play sport, and that’s their job. That’s what’s exciting for me. Looking forward to that, this is the start of that and we’ll get there. It’s just about continuing to drive women’s sports out to the public.

What’s next for the Rebels? You’re in your offseason now, but are you already planning for the next season? What does that look like?

So at the moment, I’ll be having to reapply for my job because my contract was at the end of this year. But you know, I’m planning as though I’ll be there. I’ll do the process. We’re just finishing off our review of the program and then getting player feedback out and starting to work with the players as to what we want for them, from them over the next little while. At the moment with no rugby, it’s sort of a little bit tough, but it’s basically reviewing this year, what went really well, what we need to change, if we need to change anything. 

Image: Supplied

And then for me, I’ll reapply for the job because from day one, I’ve had sort of a five year plan of where we wanted to be and 2020 was about being competitive and consistent, having consistency. And I think that was my goal personally and for the program, and I think we’ve hit those and then next year is really, for me, is about really stepping up and being a force to be reckoned with and challenging. Next year is all about challenging for me. It’s challenging the playing group, challenging results, and the like. So building the program now of what we want and how that’s going to look to achieve us getting more wins and hopefully challenging to be in a playoff position is the next step. But that’s sort of where I’m at at the moment is reviewing and tying up 2020 and then starting to look forward to what falls out of that review in terms of planning for 2021.

What sort of advice would you give to someone, a woman, that was thinking about coaching in any sport, what would your advice be to them?

I would say do it. It’s one of those rewarding things to work with players. It’s rewarding, it’s challenging, but the reward really outweighs any of the challenges that you come up with. Get involved with a sporting organisation or get a mentor or someone that can help you through it and guide you through it because, you know, it’s not going to be smooth sailing. But it’s really good to be a part of something and see and help and grow individuals, not just on the field, but off the field and seeing them grow as people and then develop throughout their life whether you’re taking kids from a junior sport and watching them progress and grow as players but also through their life as they grow up and have life experiences. 

It’s one of the most rewarding things you can do is being a coach and being able to connect with a variety of different players and people but it’s not just the players, it’s their families. Just the reward that you will grow your family by just being a coach and having the connections that you have. And that would be one of the biggest things that I take out of it is that reward side of things, but also having good people around you is probably another piece of advice. That mentor, people that can help you, that you can go to and ask questions and sort of throw ideas around and just I suppose spitball. You know I was thinking of doing this, what do you think? That’s probably another piece of advice is having someone that you can really trust and have as a mentor along your way but yeah, my first bit of advice is go for it because it’s one of the best things coaching athletes, being a part of a team sport or even if it’s an individual sport coaching athletes, it’s one of the most rewarding things you can do.

It’s one of the most rewarding things you can do is being a coach and being able to connect with a variety of different players and people but it’s not just the players, it’s their families. Just the reward that you will grow your family by just being a coach and having the connections that you have.

And it’s the old saying of you know, if you love something and you’re doing it for a job you don’t really see it as a job because you love it. I’d love to coach for a living but yeah, at the moment, I just love coaching and being able to help develop players so yeah, go for it. Have good people around you and really just, you know, enjoy it. You will be challenged and the like but you know, the rewards far outweigh the challenges you’ll come up against. 

I wanted to chat to you a little bit about the history of women’s rugby. The history of women’s sport is a big passion of mine. So I always try and get it into any interview I do. We know there’s a long history of women’s rugby. Do you think much about that history and what has come before you? And if you do, how important is it to what you do today?

Oh, it is massively important. I think I said before, in 2003 when I made the NSW Country side, I didn’t really know about the Wallaroos. But once I started playing, you sort of go back and you look at the players that have come like, I look at players like Cheryl Soon, who was my captain, Selena Worsely that have played since like 1998 or 2002. And you look back at what they did and how they went about things and for me in the early 2000s, being a part of Wallaroos and then looking at what we had then and then looking back at those teams from the 1990s. They had to pay to go to World Cups, they had to do that. 

You really appreciate that you’re a part of that, that what they’ve done has allowed you to be able to do what you did. So for me it was having a program and having it fully funded was because those players had come before us. If they didn’t pay to go away, would there have been a Wallaroos and things like that. 

One of the coaches, post my career, set up the history of the Wallaroos and went back and found all the documentation and games and started to create a history. And there’s a document that’s with the current Wallaroos manager where she documents every game and try scorers, points scorers. And there’s the full history and I remember looking at that last year and going wow, like look at these names. They played one or two tests a year and these girls played for five or six years and probably had to pay for everything that they had to do. But you go back and you see some of those names and they’re still involved in the sport in Sydney or Brisbane so I think it’s, you know, for me, understanding where the sports has come from is a massive part of it, because without those players before you, the sport can’t get on. 

It’s really important that you know the history of the sport and I think it’s something that you want to remind players that they’re part of this journey.

I look at England and the history over there with women’s rugby and they’ve been probably one of the big pioneers in terms of professionalism and one of the first ones to do it. You look at the history in New Zealand with a World Rugby Hall of Famer in Farah Palmer, who’s on the World Rugby board. She’s a very proud Maori girl and on New Zealand’s board. And the Laurie O’Rielly trophy for the Wallaroos New Zealand test matches was named in honour of a player that was instrumental in setting up the Trans-Tasman test. 

It’s really important that you know the history of the sport and I think it’s something that you want to remind players that they’re part of this journey. And they’re a part of the history and the story and that there’ll be people come after them that will look back on them and say, wow, look at your Grace Hamiltons, you look at your Medz Robinsons, your Georgia Cormicks, your Mel Kawas, you know, how great were they for the Melbourne Rebels when they played and Grace Hamilton for the Wallaroos. People will look back on that and look at those names and what they did for the sport. 

So it’s really important that you know where the sport’s come from, and know that you’re going to be a part of that history at some point when you finish playing, and to make sure that you keep promoting and pushing what we’ve gone through to get to where we are and be grateful for that and always stay humble is probably the big thing for me. So that the game continues to grow.

I’m nodding furiously. Because I agree, that history is so important. You really do need to know where you have come from and I think that it gives you so much context for where you are now. I’ve got one more question for you. I love to ask women who are involved in sport this question, I think it’s always fascinating to see what they say. What do you love about your sport, about rugby?

I just love the camaraderie. It’s a physical sport and having each other’s backs and just the real you know, camaraderie, the family that the rugby community is, particularly in Victoria [where] it’s a very small family. But all around the world, when you go somewhere in the world and you go to a rugby club and they’ll go I knew someone from Australia, they came from here, and it’s just a big family all around the world. And that’s what I love about it is that you can walk into any rugby club in Australia, around the world and say where you come from, and you’re probably going to have people who knew someone that came from Australia, and there’d be stories and that’s what it’s like the family that you have. 

And I also love the stories, the stories of all of the different clubs, particularly in country rugby where I played all my rugby, the stories and you know, you play your game of footy and at the end of the first grade game, everyone goes up has showers and at six o’clock you have speeches and both teams are there and you have your three two ones for all the grades and you have the old boat race and, you know, it’s that connection of a community you have and I think that’s the, that’s the thing I love is listening to all the old stories of the games, the finals, the old rivalries—Forbes and Parkes had a massive rivalry where I played and lived in New South Wales—just all that kind of stuff, which ties into the history of the sport and you know, seeing the different generations come through and to be passed those stories and then the next stories that come through from it. Yeah, it’s a pretty special sport and I don’t think it’s unique just to rugby. I think every sport would have a similar sort of history, but I think that’s what I love about rugby is that camaraderie, that community feeling that we have and yeah, just the fact that it’s played all around the world, I suppose is another thing that you can go anywhere in the world and see it.

One thought on “For the love of the game: Melbourne Rebels coach Alana Thomas on Super W, coaching, and playing for Australia.

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