A rugby league story fit for Hollywood
Jamaican bobsledders have got nothing on Latoya Billy.
Less than six months after playing her first serious game of rugby league, Billy is on the verge of selection in the Australian Women's rugby league team to meet the Kiwi Ferns at Suncorp Stadium on May 1 but her literal and physical journeys are straight from the pages of a Hollywood manuscript.
A volleyball-loving shop assistant from tiny Moa Island in the Torres Strait 80 kilometres north of Cape Yorke Peninsula falls in love with rugby league and after sharing the stage with the game's greatest players is selected in a squad of 21 to represent her country.
Not even the writers responsible for "Lost" would have submitted a storyline so bizarre.
"It would be like a kid coming out of the desert who has never really played a game of footy, playing in a few carnivals and then going all the way to an NRL team. It's a bit crazy," says former NRL star Dean Widders.
The only child of a single mother, any time Billy wants to play a game of rugby league she must fly from Moa Island to Horn Island, take another plane from Horn Island to Cairns and then a third flight from Cairns to Brisbane.
All told, it took her two days of travel to get to the Gold Coast last week for a three-day Jillaroos training camp that she hopes will provide her with another opportunity to simply play rugby league, albeit on a much grander stage than she has ever seen before, let alone been one of the star attractions.
Her only regular exposure to throwing a footy around is a mid-week game of mixed touch football but far from the thriving competitions found throughout Australia, participation rates in a community of only a few hundred people are rather small.
"Not many, maybe six," Billy says of the regular participants.
Desperate to simply have the chance to play, Billy reached out to the Brisbane Natives women's team to play in the Murri Carnival in October last year and despite her inexperience was selected in the Queensland Murri team to play a NZ Maori team three weeks later.
"They didn't think she'd be any good so they gave her jersey No.22 and then she gets down there and blitzes them," says Widders, who coached Billy in the Women's Indigenous All Stars team in February.
"We found out that was virtually the first time she'd played serious football so we tagged her as someone we wanted to put in the All Stars team.
"One of the girls, Ash Singleton, pointed her out to me and said I had to realise how far she'd come and what a remarkable talent she was. We started to watch her more closely and you could just see it, she's a freak."
Despite never having met any of her teammates prior to the Murri Carnival, Billy told NRL.com that she was immediately welcomed into the group, a welcome she also received when she joined the All Stars team.
"It was a good experience for me. I learnt new skills and it was awesome playing with other Indigenous ladies," Billy said.
"They welcomed me very well into the team, the Brisbane Natives, and same with the All Stars. They're like sisters."
The 19-year-old's extraordinary rise reached new heights during All Stars week as she mingled with NRL stars and then scored her team's only two tries at Cbus Super Stadium, showing blistering speed and great finishing ability on the left wing.
But according to Widders, this script has not yet reached its final act, backing Billy to make her Test debut with the Jillaroos next month.
"I think she's good enough. We were worried about [her inexperience] playing her in the All Stars but she took everything in her stride," Widders said.
"She picks things up very quickly. You'd look at her and think she's a very experienced player by the way she played in that All Stars week. We ran three camps all up for the women's Indigenous side and at every one of them she just picked things up so quickly and by the end of it she was ready to go and she played really well.
"She was on the big stage but it didn't worry her one bit so I reckon there'd be no problem with her playing in the Test match against New Zealand. She's just a freakish talent."
The Jillaroos play the Kiwi Ferns as the curtain-raiser to the Australia-New Zealand Test at Suncorp Stadium on Friday, May 1. Tickets here.