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Tackling Tradition: An Interview with Paige Penning

Paige Penning has always been an athlete. Growing up in Goulburn she was only allowed to play ‘girls’ sports such as netball and basketball. This year she played her first ever Rugby Union season with the Super W Brumbies squad, and managed to continue working in her full time job. Training for an elite athlete is normally stressful, but imagine having to coordinate hours upon hours every week around your job, because unlike the men in your code you don’t get paid.

I sat down with Paige over a cup of coffee and we talked all things Rugby, and how she manages to keep both her rugby and working life in check.

Paige after her first game for the Super W Brumbies in Queanbeyan

I understand this year was your first ever season of Rugby Union, and that you always played other sports. How did you get into Rugby Union from Basketball?

I had always wanted to get into Rugby. My Dad was a Rugby League player and I was one of those girls in high school that would always go to the footy on a Friday night, because I just loved being around it. In high school we tried to get a girls team together for Rugby, and we were told that we could only play touch footy. I’ve never had the body type to play touch football, I simply don’t have the speed and have never been built for it. So, basketball became my sport and I played basketball and netball all through school, and stuck with basketball after I left high school and continued to play while I was at university. I always played representative basketball which I think helped to set me up for the training that I have to do for my rugby now. I always took my sport and my training seriously.

It was only after I left university and started working, that Rugby for women started becoming more accepted. I knew of a few girls who were younger than me and still at high school who also wanted to play, so I had to wait until they turned 18 so that we could start an opens women’s rugby team. As soon as they turned 18 we started a team and had enough to play in Rugby 7’s. I remember our first game was after we had only been together as a team for two weeks and it was in Jindabyne. I can still remember the snow on the field, we literally had to kick it away. It was definitely a very memorable introduction to rugby for all of us.

So, that’s where we started. We would play without subs for a couple of years until we had enough girls to have a couple on the bench, which was such a luxury at the time. I think it was only towards the end of last year when we started to get around 15 or more players regularly coming to training, we made a real effort to recruit more girls. I’d be down at the local pub and I’d ask girls what they did on the weekends and if they wanted to have a go.

Paige after her first game for the Super W Brumbies against the Melbourne Rebels

So how did you end up being a part of the Brumbies Super W Squad from such small beginnings in Goulburn?

So I live and breathed rugby. It was all I would think about and I would try and get as much publicity for our Goulburn team, the Dirty Reds, as much as possible. I would call up the local paper and get them to run a story every week and we would all post on Facebook as much as possible. We just really wanted people to come and play or watch us play.

We had a tournament in Wagga Wagga which we won, and it was run by Brumbies Rugby. So on the Saturday after we had won that final game in the competition someone came up to us and told the team that they had trials happening for the Brumbies women’s squad in two or three weeks. We rallied everyone together, and in the end we had three of us who drove to Canberra for the trials. Our coach Dave Anable was super encouraging and said we should just go for it, even if we didn’t get selected it would mean we’d get to play a full game of rugby, which was the trial. We had absolutely no idea what we were doing and just had a go. I was so happy to just play a game that I wasn’t that worried.

The next week my coach and his family, who are my ‘rugby family’ weren’t talking to me, which was really weird. I was driving home from training one night and our coach Dave asked me to come round for dinner with the family that night. This got me even more worried because he wouldn’t tell me why and that I would find out when I got there. So I went to their house for dinner and they sat me down at their dining room table, and Dave told me that I had been selected for the squad. It was so special. He said that he hadn’t told anyone else and he’d wanted to tell me himself. So from there I started training with the squad.

Paige before the Super W game against the Melbourne Rebels

What training was involved once you had been named in the squad?

Training was three times a week for two hours at a time. It was always more than two hours, more like three or four hours. So the program said 6 til 8 on Monday, Wednesday and Fridays. I would drive to Canberra straight after work to training. Then we also had a gym session in that as well, and a recovery session afterwards. We also had a gym sessions to do when we weren’t at training as well. I became a hermit over those six months because all I did rugby.

Was there a lot of travel involved?

Definitely. So, it is good because it’s a short season. The way that it works is, there’s a squad, which is about 30, and the team selected to play at each game is 23 players. The team can change, and they only ever take the 23. I was selected for a couple of games, one was against the Melbourne Rebels. I’m hoping to get selected this year more because I know what I’m doing unlike last year . If you get picked in the team then you have to travel to the arena where the game will be played, our last one was in Brisbane.

I would also have to drive to and from training after work, which takes over an hour. The driving would make me tired, but there were some girls that would travel from Wagga Wagga or Orange to come to training. I wouldn’t complain about the driving when they were around.

Paige in the thick of it, playing for the Super W Brumbies

What strategies did you have in place in your daily routine to help you cope with the intense training schedule, and still slogging out a full work day? 

Delegate and let your family help you. Mum would cook my dinners, my nan would do my ironing and Dad cooked me rissoles that I could fit into my strict diet at the time. Dad barbecued the rissoles and I would eat them cold in the car. We had to eat 30g of protein in between sessions, which is all well and good for someone with access to cold milk in the fridge. So basically I lived off hot up and go’s , muesli bars and protein cups. So many times I would drive past McDonalds on my way home and just think about eating a cheeseburger! I had my diet dictated to me and my family even helped out with that.

Where do you see yourself in five years?

5 years will mean another state election, and hopefully we’ve won again. In sport hopefully I will have heaps more games under my belt. I will stick with rugby and eventually I’d love to be good enough to get a look in for the Wallaroos.

I’d also love to see a full team for our local Dirty Reds team in Goulburn. I also want to see more Goulburn girls playing for the Brumbies and just more women playing the sport in general. And eventually, hopefully a full car driving to training three times a week from Goulburn so I have someone to talk to, and it’s not just me in my car alone listening to podcasts!

Paige taking the field for the Super W Brumbies

Any advice for girls who want to pursue sport at an elite level and still hold down a job?

Definitely delegate, and use your time wisely. Women’s sport is growing but we are just not at that level where we have the luxury of not knowing where our next paycheque will come from. We don’t get nearly as much as the guys do.

You have to know what your goals are. You can’t do everything, and if you want to play sport seriously the reality is that other things like your career may fall to the side for a while. Also be okay with that, if sport is what you love than pursue it.

I spent all my money this past year on equipment for rugby and a new car so I could make it to and from training in one piece. I don’t regret it at all because this is what I want to do, and I’m loving every minute of it.

Paige giving a pep talk to her Goulburn Dirty Reds team…who she hopes can continue to grow.


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