In a year when a lot of rugby ground to a halt, all-action Wallaroos star Grace Hamilton still managed to win some silverware and also try her hand at another sport.

While Australia’s entire eight-test programme for the year was wiped out due to the global pandemic, Hamilton rounded off 2020 with a short spell in rugby league before winning the Chikarovski Cup with New South Wales Country in November.

And now her sights are firmly set on preparing well for Rugby World Cup 2021 as Australia bid to better their sixth-place finish in Ireland four years ago.

“Let’s hope so, that’s our goal,” she said.

“Last time only the top teams in each group and the best runner-up went through so it was really cut-throat. If you lost a game you were pretty much out.

“But we have the quarter-finals this time which is great for us.”

Australia, currently ranked fifth in the World Rugby Women’s Rankings, are second seeds in Pool A behind reigning champions and five-time winners New Zealand, and the new format gives them some wriggle room if the result of the trans-Tasman match goes against them as the formbook would suggest.

Either way, Hamilton is happy to test herself against “the best”.

“For us, to be able to compare ourselves to them, or even be in a battle with them, is something we have aimed really hard for.

“What we need to do when we play them is to keep our heads held high if we make an error and keep the belief that we can turn it around.

“I love playing New Zealand, they are the best, and it makes me excited rather than be scared by it.”

Momentum-stopping year

COVID-19 restrictions mean that the Wallaroos have not been able to train together let alone play together as a group for longer than they can remember.

And the national team training camp at the Australian Institute of Sport in Canberra planned for this month has been pushed back to March.

Australia’s last test was the 37-8 Laurie O’Reilly Memorial Trophy defeat to New Zealand at Eden Park in Auckland in August 2019.

With much of the Wallaroos squad made up of crossover athletes from other sports, having so much time out of the test arena has been an obvious barrier to their skill development and game learning.

Even a relative ‘veteran’ of international rugby like Hamilton, who began playing in 2016, admits self-doubts creep in.

“Looking at myself, I haven’t played a game since November (in the Chikarovski Cup) and I am like, ‘oh my gosh, have I forgotten how to play … am I going to be any good anymore?’ You only get better by playing the game,” said the Wallaroos’ Player of the Year in 2019.

“Last year I wanted to play to keep that momentum going so it’s going to be a bit of a tough roll back into it.”

The 28-year-old’s brief venture into the 13-player code with the Sydney Roosters did little to help fill the void.

“Rugby League was fun but definitely not my game. Being a back-rower you didn’t get to do as much; it was a bit one-dimensional.”

The green grass of home

The Chikarovski Cup was more fulfilling for Sydney-based Hamilton, though, as she got to represent her region of origin and win silverware in front of family and friends.

“It was disappointing we didn’t have any tests but at least we got some footy in at the end of the year.

“I loved playing with the girls, they played with so much heart during the game and you could see how much it meant to them. To be able to play for the team where I come from was a really nice thing to do.

“My dad was president of Country junior rugby, so it was important for me to pull on a Country jersey. In the past, it’s only ever been my brothers’ jerseys but that was the first time as a female.”

Heading to the hills

For now, though, it’s back to a training vest and hill running alongside the rest of the players in the NSW satellite training group, near the family sheep farm.

“I’ve been doing those running sessions that you hate from your S&C coach, that you just keep grinding away at knowing there is a reason for them.

“I’m trying to get myself in the best position physically and mentally so I can be the best player I can be for Australia come September 18th (the start of RWC 2021). That’s my goal this year.

“I know motivation has been tough for a lot of us especially being segregated and not being able to train with your mates. But I’ve been lucky in that there have been people around to push me – there’s about 20 of us – and there’s my family as well.

“Mum will stand out there when we are running the hills and shout ‘run faster’. She has no idea how fast we are meant to run but she’ll still tell us!”

Read more: Eight classic women’s pool matches at Rugby World Cup >>