Almost 20 years on, Alana Thomas can still remember vividly the phone call she made home during her first year at university.
Thomas had been trying out for a netball team when a couple of rugby players, watching from the sidelines, noticed she combined a powerful throwing arm with a physical approach.
“I wasn't in the non-contact nature of netball,” she admitted to World Rugby. Having played rugby league and touch football growing up, Thomas didn’t need much convincing to give union a go.
Her parents, back in Glen Innes in northern New South Wales, however, were not immediately so thrilled with their daughter’s sporting switch.
“I went to a training session and loved it, and that was it,” Thomas recalled about her first encounter with the game back in 2001.
“I rang up my parents and said, ‘Would I be able to have some money to buy some rugby boots?’ And they were like, ‘Excuse me?’”
Luckily for Thomas, the money for the boots arrived and her rugby career “just went from there”.
Five years later, she was an Australian international and travelled to Canada as part of the Wallaroos Rugby World Cup 2006 squad.
In Edmonton, Thomas started the pool-stage defeat to France at fly-half and appeared as a replacement in the fifth-place semi-final loss against the USA.
Thomas ranks the subsequent seventh-place play-off victory against Ireland as one of two “big highlights” from her playing career.
“Ireland were probably more the favoured opponent,” she said, “and to come out and win and finish seventh was fantastic.”
The second blue-riband moment came two years later, when Australia hosted New Zealand in back-to-back test matches in Canberra — the first time Thomas had represented her country at home.
Here we go worldrugby High Performance Academy about to kick off. 4 months of learning and development with some great coaches along with some awesome presenters sharing their knowledge. #hpcoaching #rugbycoach… https://t.co/CfgfhDIRhc— Alana Thomas (@AlanaThomas7) May 13, 2020
“That was pretty special to be on home soil, representing your country in front of your family that had been there the whole time, supporting you and helping you to achieve your goal,” she said.
Around five years ago, when the time came for Thomas to hang up her playing boots, she was determined to stay involved with the game to help provide more women with the opportunities and experiences that she had enjoyed.
Having begun mentoring younger team-mates, she took on more formal responsibilities with her club’s backs and goal-kickers. Then, in 2015, came an invitation to a development programme put on by Rugby Australia.
“I've been really fortunate as a player to represent my country and to really have some great memories and friends and to have travelled around the world playing rugby.
“So, I wanted to stay involved and continue to grow the women's game because I think it's really important. I've had that opportunity, I feel a real obligation to give back,” Thomas explained.
“It was really at that point that I got a real fire in my belly, just like as a player, I wanted to be back in that [Wallaroos] environment as a coach.”
Getting the gang back together
Thomas joined the Melbourne Rebels Women’s set-up as an emerging players coach in April, 2016, and 20 months later was promoted to the role of head coach.
The 38-year-old has subsequently achieved her ambition of returning to the Wallaroos environment. Last November she travelled to the Oceania Rugby Women’s Championship in Fiji with Australia A, as assistant to head coach Moana Virtue.
In Thomas’ words, the tournament turned into a get-together for several World Rugby Women’s High Performance Academy attendees.
“It was like a reunion of half the gang,” she recalled. “You had S&Cs [strength and conditioning coaches], you had coaches, you had match officials.
“It was fantastic to see the progression of everyone, getting into those opportunities in their national team.
“It was just fantastic to see us growing and developing and having a chat and seeing what we were doing and what we'd taken out of Stellenbosch and into our programme.”
Thomas, who began World Rugby’s virtual High Performance Academy in May, is thankful for the community she gained while in Stellenbosch last year. Attendees have kept connected through social media and video calls over the past 12 months.
By the time of her trip to Fiji, Thomas had also started an Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) women’s high-performance course and was grateful to have an understanding employer.
The New South Wales native has worked for the Victorian Institute of Sport as a Business Services Coordinator since March, 2016, and was able to secure the ‘holiday’ she needed to follow her coaching dream.
“I've got a really great boss,” Thomas said. “Last year I had Stellenbosch, I had the Oceanias, I went to Perth for the Wallaroos test matches, and I was also doing an AIS high-performance women's course across nine months.
“He was really, really accommodating [and] really, really good in terms of allowing me the time off to go and do that.”
Working for a sporting organisation has provided other perks for Thomas, too. “I've got my career as an accountant, but I'm in a sporting environment which is pretty fortunate,” she explained.
“Every day walking around with Olympic champions, world champions in the gym, talking to world-class coaches, it's a really good environment for me.
“Not only as a professional, but also from a coaching point of view to have those people that you can sort of have conversations with over the water cooler or in the lunchroom.”