Emma Tonegato admits she may never have switched to rugby sevens after the 2013 World Cup if the NRLW competition had been established earlier.
Tonegato was an 18-year-old schoolgirl when she helped the Jillaroos create history by beating the Kiwi Ferns in the final of the 2013 World Cup in England and the Dragons fullback may have the opportunity to take her career full circle at the end of season World Cup, also in England.
For now, Tonegato is focused on Sunday’s NRLW grand final against the Sydney Roosters at Redcliffe’s Moreton Daily Stadium.
However, she can expect a phone call from NSW coach Kylie Hilder in coming weeks, particularly with Botille Vette-Welsh ruled out of State of Origin after rupturing her ACL.
The 27-year-old rejected an approach from St George Illawarra to play in the inaugural NRLW season in 2018 to re-sign with Rugby Australia until after last year’s Olympic Games in Japan, but contacted the Dragons upon her return.
Had the Telstra NRL Women’s premiership been around in 2014, she may never have left the code.
“It would have definitely been a bit more of a decision,” Tonegato said. “Obviously the lure of playing in an Olympic Games is pretty big but I think it would have been a bigger decision if it was today.
“Back in 2013 there was no NRLW to keep girls around and now there is this awesome season.”
Karyn Murphy, who is now in charge of the NRL integrity unit, was captain of the 2013 Jillaroos team that upset the Kiwi Ferns 22-12 in the World Cup final at Headingley and has followed Tonegato’s career ever since.
Jillaroos eye World Cup glory
After scoring three tries in a pool match against France, Tonegato was called up to replace the injured Karina Brown on the wing in the final.
“She was definitely the little grommet of the squad. She carried around the mascot and did all of our duties for us,” Murphy said.
“She was a nice, quiet kid who was keen to learn and you could see even then that she had enormous talent. Us older players loved having her there. Her enthusiasm lifted us, and we had all the confidence in her when Karina was unfortunately ruled out.
"She had a great tournament and you see that she was destined for great things, but unfortunately we lost her to sevens for all those years.
“For her to be at a World Cup so young, and also to play in a World Cup final with the pressure that comes with that, it was no surprise to me that she did so well in rugby and that she has come back and stood out in the NRLW this season.
"I am always disappointed when we lose players to rugby or other sports, but you could understand back then why she took up the opportunity. I am just really happy to see her playing and playing so well.
“It would be nine years since the World Cup and for her to go over there again, where it all started, would be a great story.”
Whether that happens remains to be seen and Tonegato would face some stiff competition for the No.1 jersey as the NRLW boasts an outstanding crop of fullbacks in Vette-Welsh (Eels), Tamika Upton (Broncos), Corban Baxter (Roosters), Evania Pelite (Titans) and Romy Teitzel (Knights), while Sam Bremner (pregnancy) is set to return.
The Dragons are hopeful of retaining Tonegato for the 2022 Telstra NRL Women’s Premiership at the end of the season after unsuccessfully attempting to bring her home for the inaugural NRLW competition that grew out of the 2017 World Cup.
Tonegato with one of the tackle's of the season
After scoring a try to help Australia win the gold medal at the 2016 Olympics in Rio, Rugby Australia offered Tonegato a contract on the eve of the 2018 NRLW season that kept her in the code until after the Tokyo Games last year.
“She was tied up with rugby union and they were all on contract, so she wasn’t allowed to play,” Dragons NRWL football manager Steve Nielsen said.
“I think being back in the NRLW suits her lifestyle now. It just came about one day through her manager. He gave us a call and just asked whether we trained in Wollongong because she lives in Wollongong and had got herself a job.
“I think she probably had it in the back of her mind, especially after the NRLW started, that she wanted to come back and have another go at rugby league to see if she could still play at that level, which she has obviously shown that she can.
“It is funny, I found an old DVD before we had even spoken with Emma and it had some footage of her playing in 2013 for the Illawarra team that went up and played in a knock-out in Sydney. There was this little blonde No.1 who was absolutely killing it and that was Emma.
“She played in what were pretty much embryonic stages with Illawarra in those days, she went on to play in the World Cup that year and was snapped up by rugby union. I can see now why they wanted her.”
Many believe that the ability to train full time has enabled the likes of Tonegato and Pelite, who was also a member of the 2016 and 2020 Olympics sevens teams, to play at the level they have in both codes and it’s a view endorsed by the players.
“I think having eight years of professional training behind me has obviously helped,” Tonegato said.
“I think if other players get that level of training the women’s game is just going to go through the roof so I am hoping that it is a sign that the more professional the game is the better the performances will be.”
Jillaroos coach Brad Donald welcomed the return of Tonegato and Pelite, who played the 2020 NRLW season for the Warriors, to the code.
“Players like Evania and Emma are really showing the level of professionalism that we can take rugby league to in the next few years,” Donald said.
“The game is in a different stage than when Emma left. The 2013 World Cup team basically had their flights, accommodation and some of their meals covered so it is a totally different situation now.
“The games leading up to the World Cup were basically club footy at community level and this year they are going to have two NRLW seasons and State of Origin before they go so it is totally different.”
Donald said he was excited by the growth in talent to choose from at the end-of-the-season for the Jillaroos squad, with Tonegato and Pelite expected to be firmly in contention if available.
“It is not our place to reach out as Jillaroos, NSW and Queensland staff while these girls are still playing because they have a job to do for their teams,” Donald said.
“I think once the NRLW finishes on Sunday there will be some frantic calls from both NSW and Queensland around players like Evania and Emma to see their desire to play State of Origin.
Tonegato and Pelite have been clinical in NRLW 2021
“Once that is completed they are probably going to be hearing from someone like me, if they do play State of Origin.
“I’d be lying if I didn’t say every Jillaroos staff member, and past and present player, wasn’t excited that spots are going to be a whole lot harder to get because we have now actually helped to grow the game and there is more and more talent.
“We could pick a NSW-based team and if you didn’t know where they were from you would think that was a strong Australian team and we could pick another team of Queensland-based players would be equally as strong.
“The game has never been in that position.”