Talia Atfield reunited with game she always loved
Talia Atfield feared the nearest she would get to playing in the NRL was winning the Kick for Cash segment on The Footy Show two years ago, so she told a white lie when St George Illawarra coach Daniel Lacey asked if she would be fit for the inaugural women's competition.
After previously having her rugby league dream snatched away as a 12-year-old with the Bomaderry Swamp Rats, she was facing the prospect of being unable to play in the NRL Holden Women's Premiership after a debilitating back injury that had sidelined her for 12 months.
Atfield had to turn down a place in the NRL's elite top 40 squad earlier this year and was unavailable for the World Cup, National Championships and State of Origin because of the lower back injury which she'd been told required disc replacement surgery.
Intensive physiotherapy enabled the 2016 Illawarra player of the year to return to playing last month alongside Kezie Apps and Sam Bremner for the Helensburgh Tigerlillies, but when Lacey offered her a Dragons contract Atfield didn't know if she would get a medical clearance.
"He was asking about my back," Atfield said.
"He said, 'are you in or are you out'. I told him 'I'm in', but at that stage I didn't really have the all clear.
"I can't thank Lacey enough, he believes in me and having his support was the determination to get to where I want to be."
Being a rugby league player has been Atfield's ambition since she was four years old.
Her father Peter relented when she was seven but the star playmaker was forced to give the game away five years later as girls weren't allowed to play beyond 12.
"I played all my juniors with Bomaderry. In under 12s we won the grand final and I scored the winning try and got player of the match and after that they told me I couldn't play anymore," she said.
"I was devastated so I turned to all of those other sports and then I started with Bomaderry again two years ago."
In her first season back, Atfield won the Illawarra women's player of the year award and made a starring appearance on The Footy Show after being randomly selected from the audience to "kick for cash" in the car park of Channel Nine’s Sydney studio.
Atfield had the option of choosing a panel member to attempt the kick but she took it herself and comfortably slotted the ball between the posts.
"I didn't really have a choice," she said.
"I was with the Bomo girls up there, it was a team bonding thing and when it landed on me I was ducking in the crowd, I was hiding because I was so embarrassed.
"They wouldn't have given me any other choice but to kick it. There was actually a joke in the car on the way home about how I was just a girl from Bomaderry putting Bomaderry on the map. From there to now it's been crazy with the ups and downs."
The worst was the back injury which specialists put down to the impact of playing sport such as basketball, soccer, touch and tag on a virtual daily basis during her teens while she wasn't allowed to play league.
After just one season back in the game she loved, Atfield feared her career was finished.
"Surgery was one option but as soon as that was mentioned, the thought of having someone dig around in my spine was a bit scary so I looked at all the other options and I ended up with Mick Baines at BaiMed Physiotherapy," she said.
"He said he would get me playing again and here I am with the first ever St George Illawara women's NRL side. It's a dream come true."