Jillaroos rookie forging new Territory
Joining the Royal Australian Air Force and being stationed in Katherine three hours south of Darwin on a three-year secondment is the start of an incredible journey in itself but Meg Ward had no idea it could possibly lead to playing rugby league for Australia in Papua New Guinea.
Ward is one of six new faces in the Jillaroos team that will make history as the first Australian women's team to play against the PNG Orchids on Saturday in a double-header with the Prime Minister's XIII at Port Moresby's National Football Stadium.
It has the potential to be the catalyst for significant cultural change in a country not yet used to seeing women compete on the same sporting stage as men and for the Jillaroos it will mark another milestone in their international footprint.
A former Australian Schoolgirls soccer and Reds Rugby Women's Sevens representative, Ward grew up in a rugby league-obsessed household in Samford north-west of Brisbane but never had the opportunity to play until moving to the Northern Territory earlier this year.
Finding a flyer promoting schoolgirls rugby league, Ward drove three hours from her RAAF base to simply talk to someone about possibly joining a team and after five games for the Northern Sharks represented the NT Titans at the Combined Affiliated States Championships where she was named player of the tournament.
In doing so she also came to the attention of Jillaroos coach Brad Donald and after attending a couple of training camps now finds herself pulling on the green and gold and a step closer to World Cup selection in November.
"To debut and be making history with these girls is crazy," Ward told NRL.com.
"For me I was just playing because I love it. I love football, I love playing sport so I was never expecting anything to come from it or that anyone was watching.
"Even down at the Affiliated States I just went down there with the girls not really expecting anything from it so when they announced that there was four girls going into a Jillaroos camp it blew my mind."
Ward and fellow Jillaroos rookies Lucy Lockhart (NT) and Maddison Bennett (Western Australia) represent the next wave of Jillaroos who are emerging from outside the traditional strongholds of New South Wales and Queensland.
And while the showcase of women's rugby league this weekend represents a major step forward for the game in Papua New Guinea, Donald says the selection of the likes of Ward, Bennett and Lockhart are changing the face of the game in Australia.
"The fact that they have got picked has had an impact on the game in our country as well," Donald said.
"The game's only just emerging in some of those states and the fact that they're coming through, we're receiving messages and enquiries from leagues in Perth about how to set up a women's competition and also someone in Darwin about when to start the girls in a high performance program.
"They're all super super keen and what they are doing is putting the other girls under a heap of pressure through their enthusiasm."
A firefighter at the RAAF's Tindal base, Ward relies on her air force compatriots not only to help cover her shifts when footy commitments come calling but also to provide her the training she needs in order to fast-track her rugby league development.
"Adapting to league when I moved to the NT was actually a lot easier than what I expected," said Ward, who plays primarily at centre or five-eighth.
"Just having played union I was used to the whole contact and everything so that wasn't an issue so it was just learning a couple of the rules.
"I play touch footy out at my base. I'm based at Tindal and we play in Darwin which is a three-hour drive to get there. I do all my training with the boys that I work with out at Tindal.
"I travel up, play on the weekend and then head back after.
"It's a long drive but it's worth it. I love it."