Queensland rookie puts Olympic dream on hold

Women's Rugby League World Cup or Commonwealth Games?

Such has been the growth of the women's game in recent years that this is the question Chelsea Lenarduzzi is currently pondering as she prepares to represent Queensland for the first time in Sunday's Interstate Challenge in Wollongong.

To be played as a double-header with the NRL clash between the Dragons and Sea Eagles, the Queensland girls have plenty of motivation to wrest back the Nellie Doherty Cup after New South Wales broke their 17-year stranglehold last year with an 8-4 win on the Gold Coast.

The Queensland team will have five debutants take the field on Sunday but none have quite the conundrum of Lenarduzzi who is a two-time Australian shot put champion with one eye on representing her country at next year's Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast and another on playing for the Jillaroos in Sydney later this year.

Originally from Moss Vale in the NSW Southern Highlands, Lenarduzzi's main exposure to rugby league was through the exploits of her older brother Rhys who spent time with the Dragons, Tigers, Eels and Panthers before stints in France and Italy, including four Tests for Italy.

 


A talented sportswoman who combined her athletic pursuits with stints in basketball and hockey, Lenarduzzi moved to the Gold Coast two years ago to begin a double degree at Griffith University and thought she'd give rugby league a go.

"I'd always felt watching and mucking around with friends that it was probably one of my more natural sports but there was never really an opportunity to play around where I grew up," Lenarduzzi explained to NRL.com from the Queensland camp at Royal Pines. "It would have been hard to play at that young age.

"I moved to the Gold Coast in 2015 and had a year without playing a team sport and I missed it heaps.

"It was the first time I was living in an area where league was a possibility so I thought it was now or never.

"I just signed up to the Burleigh Bears on the NRL website and showed up to training and hoped for the best."

"The best" turned out to be a place in a team that was the defending premiers of the Brisbane Metro comp who would go on to defend their title last year, Lenarduzzi spending time in both the centres and the back row.

She has been named on the bench by Queensland coach Adrian Vowles for Sunday's clash and says her rise through the rugby league ranks has been just as surprising as her ascension in the Australian athletics scene.

Lenarduzzi was just 19 years of age with a previous best of fourth at junior nationals when her 'put' of 15.27m won her the national women's crown two years ago but after making such a quick transition to rugby league is hoping to juggle both sports for the foreseeable future, including fulfilling her dream of representing Australia at the Olympic Games.

"When I won nationals for the first time it did make me think I could do it at an international level and I still think I can because I'm still very young for that sport," said Lenarduzzi, who this week is rooming with experienced Queensland and Jillaroos No.9 Brittany Breayley.

"I need to be patient with that sport because it will come. The strength and technique just takes time to get there.

"I've really, really enjoyed league over the last two years and I don't want to have to decide. I want to keep doing both for as long as possible.

"It might not be realistic but I'm going to try and do both of them for as long as possible because I love them both.

"It honestly does depend a lot on league. I was pretty shocked to get into this team and I want to try and make it as far as possible in league as well."

Although realistic about her chances of being drafted into the Jillaroos after just two years of playing the sport, there is an inner determination that wearing the green and gold in rugby league is something she would very much like to achieve.

"From the end of the league season which ends locally in September it will be full-time shot put," said Lenarduzzi, whose rugby league playing experience before joining Burleigh in 2016 was three gala days in primary school.

"Obviously you want to try and make everything you can but I'm just really concentrating on this game at the moment. I don't want to treat it as a [Jillaroos] trial.

"This is the biggest league game of my life so instead of getting ahead of myself I just need to concentrate on my job in this team and let the cards fall.

"Every year you would see more and more stuff on the women's game. It's crazy. One of the first female players that I even knew the name of was Steph Hancock and now she's my teammate. It's pretty amazing that kind of stuff.

"This is only my second year in league so it's being patient with that as well."