Rebecca Clough did not start playing rugby union until she was 18 but in the 12 years since she has more than made up for lost time.
Second-row Clough earned her first call up to the Wallaroos squad in 2009 and in the decade since she has built a reputation as a fearsome competitor, representing Australia at three Women’s Rugby World Cups including in 2010 when they recorded their best finish of third.
However, she admits that during a career that has included spells with Western Australia and Worcester Valkyries in England, she has not always felt unstoppable as injuries have taken an increasing toll.
Clough’s lowest point came at the beginning of 2017 as she attempted to force her way back into the Cottesloe team following another lay-off, and with a place at that year’s Women’s Rugby World Cup in Ireland at stake.
“I wasn’t performing well on the field, I was coming back from quite a few niggly injuries and my last knee op,” she said.
“I wasn't in a great mental space, had a coach that didn’t believe in me, I felt like I was almost ostracised with a particular coach, and I left it affect me, mentally.
“That made me realise that I needed help, I needed to seek help because I knew I was more than that. I knew what I was doing inside and on the field wasn’t good enough and that I could do better.
“And then I guess you lean on people who do believe in you and you work with them, and then that confidence and all the strategies through mental coaching have helped me significantly.”
Clough was only a few weeks old when she first went underwent surgery, having been born with webbed feet and splayed big toes which required several operations as a baby to fix.
“I don’t think [the surgeons] did a great job of it,” Clough said wryly as she detailed her medical history.
She played netball, European handball and basketball as a youngster but a run of serious knee injuries – Clough underwent her first knee operation at 16 – forced her to give up sports played on hard surfaces due to medical advice.
It was at university that Clough began to play rugby, having watched enviously as her father and brother participated in the sport throughout her childhood.
By then she had torn her ACL in both knees, while she has also suffered meniscal tears, medial MCLs and other knocks that have hampered her rugby career at times.
“When you go through so much as a young person with regards to injuries and whatnot, and you have a dream as well, nothing will stop you,” Clough said.
Playing rugby was that dream, but fulfilling it has not always been easy.
“It’s been a real struggle,” she added. “I think if you talk to anyone who has had major injuries, the comeback is so mentally challenging.
“More recently I did some mental coaching. I got some advice and some life coaching and mental coaching which was really good, gave me some strategies and has helped me a lot. And, also, with that it’s helped my on-field performance as well.
“So, I’m still improving with that, it’s still a daily challenge. Some days you feel awesome, on top of the world, unstoppable.
“Other days it is a challenge and you have to work on that mental side of things.”
Clough’s dedication to her rehab ensured that she was selected by Australia coach Paul Verrell for Women’s Rugby World Cup 2017, helping her country finish sixth.
As an elite athlete in an amateur sport, though, her physio regime had to be fitted in around her job as a Youth Custodial Officer.
She admits that it can be a solitary experience, while her colleagues in the juvenile justice system “think I’m mad” when they see their work-mate taking a break to stretch or ice an existing injury.
“We don’t have anyone on our shoulder telling us we need to be in the gym today doing this and ‘I’m going to watch you do your rehab’,” Clough said.
“No, you’ve got to be really self-motivated. I spend a lot of time in the gym by myself away from the team.”
Clough insists that the road back from injury in amateur sport is “lonely but it’s worth it” and she is grateful to have an accommodating day job as well.
During the early years of her career she found it difficult to juggle work and rugby due to the shift patterns – weekends and nights as well as days – that she was required to commit to.
However, Clough has since moved into a “9-5 Monday to Friday job” which allows her to perform well at both – and there are a host of transferable skills between life on the pitch and working inside the juvenile detention system.
“In a custodial setting it can be quite dangerous at times and that teamwork that you need in rugby, you need in a custodial environment as well,” she explained. “You all need to work really well together.
“My work has been very accommodating and supportive of my rugby career. It is testing, though, at times and stressful for me because of the commitments that I need to take some time off work for rugby purposes.
“But I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Her day job also gives her the chance to use sport to impact positively on the lives of the children she works with.
“The kids have recreational time every day and they can choose different sports to play, and rugby’s one of them,” Clough added.
“[In] my job now I’m not able to get out onto the field with them but I have conversations with a lot of them and I know that rugby kept me out of some dark places and kept me on the straight and narrow.
“So, I encourage these kids to get involved in any sport on the outside.”
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