One of Australia’s greatest rugby union players is helping nurture the next generation of the game’s stars right here on the Coast.
Shirley Russell played in the first-ever Women’s Rugby World Cup. It was part of the first Queensland women’s XV, and was the first-ever Australian Women’s Player of the Year. She has had a distinguished career as a coach. Including being part of the coaching team for World Cups in both sevens and 15-a-side formats.
It’s a journey that began on the Sunshine Coast in a completely different sport. Born in New Zealand, Shirley moved from Taranaki to Cotton Tree at age 19. It wasn’t until she was 26 that she started rugby.
“I actually played soccer up on the Coast for Woombye and then the Sunshine Coast team way back in the ’90s,” she says. “Kawana Rugby Union Club (now defunct) had a come-and-try day, which I went along to, and never looked back to soccer. I finished the season then got involved in rugby. I spent two years on the Coast as captain of the Kawana team. I got selected the first year in the Australian squad – that was ’94. In ’95 from Kawana, I got in the Australian team to tour New Zealand, the first-ever tour by an Australian women’s team. 
“For me to continue my pathway or progression, I ended up moving to Brisbane because of the caliber of training, and there were more girls at the elite level because I was the only one from the Coast.”
Shirley, who now resides in Brisbane, recently returned to Kawana to host a Women in Rugby workshop supporting up-and-coming women’s players on the Coast, along with several other former Wallaroos (Australian 15-a-side representatives).
“It was very surreal turning up and being on the same blades of grass where I started playing rugby,” she says. “To see the stadium and facilities that are now available to any sporting groups are just amazing … It was lovely to come back to where it all started from.”
The workshop was attended by 18 players, plus two coaches who Shirley will continue mentoring into 2022. She says the women’s game has seen immense growth in recent years.
“From when I first started up there on the Sunshine Coast playing at Kawana for the club that we had then, the numbers have certainly increased because of the growth of the game, both in the sevens format, which has been a flagship because of the Olympics and also in the 15-a-side game,” she says. “We are considered by World Rugby, our governing body, as the fastest growth within the game – that’s global, not just in Australia. That is pure because there is an opportunity now for females to play the game – you have schoolgirls playing rugby, and that’s starting from six years and up now. So they have their schoolgirls comp, and then there’s regional competitions and state titles in the past couple of years for under-13s, 15s, 17s as well.”
Sunshine Coast Rugby Union competitions manager Mike Aronsten agrees the women’s side of the game has grown in recent years. There are now about 120 senior women’s players across six clubs on the Coast, while about 160 junior girls participate across under-13s, 15s, and 17s
“That will probably increase next year. That’s a fast-growing area for us,” he says. “We could have 200 junior girls next year.”
Shirley says the sevens format has helped increase the profile of women’s rugby, although she admits to being more a fan of the traditional 15-a-side game.
“The sevens having the exposure of funding of the Olympic committee, going to the Olympics and having a lot of national tournaments, more girls are focusing towards that because there’s more competition,” she says. “In saying that, the sevens are what I consider the ‘party game’; the 15s is the traditional game. The sevens cater for the fast, strong, and fit, whereas the 15s is a game for all body shapes and sizes.”
So what does Shirley regard as the highlight of her career?
“As a player, it would have been certainly going to the World Cup (finishing fifth) because I came back from a major injury to make that final squad,” she says. “And then in coaching, I’ve had many, highs, like 10 years after we won the state championship as a player I was then head coach of Queensland when we won the title; being involved in the 2006 World Cup as an assistant for the Wallaroos in the 15-a-side game, and ’09 when the girls won their World Cup for sevens over in Dubai.”
One unusual distinction Shirley holds is being the first foreign female to coach a men’s international team when she led Laos for two years.
“My partner was in Laos for work, and I was over there supporting them” she says. “That was interesting because there weren’t any fields as we know them. A lot of the time, we trained on a military parade ground on concrete. I was involved in a volunteer women’s ex-pat ground where I ended up meeting an American ambassador through a function. She was saying how she could assist us because she had a beautiful half-size field for her daughter’s horse as part of the American embassy. She gave us two nights a week to go and train on grass.
“It was very challenging, but the team I coached for two years was promoted. They had the ability, they needed some direction and coaching.”
Her message for anyone interested in trying out rugby is simple: “come out and have a go.”
“There are some great clubs on the Sunshine Coast that cater for the females in the game. In sevens and building up towards 15s – they do 12-a-side currently, but there is a big push to play 15-a-side,” she says. “Have a go – that’s what it’s about, is getting out there having fun, making new friends. I’ve got friends for life through it, traveled the world through it, there’s so much potential.”
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