Holli Wheeler may not have aimed to step into the role, but the Wallsend-based star may just be the most inspirational voice in rugby league.
When the Blues came out of the sheds at half-time in the 2019 Women’s State of Origin, they were behind their arch-rivals on the scoreboard.
They had seen nearly 20 sets completed against them in 30 minutes, and hadn’t been able to take any meaningful attacking raids into Queensland’s defensive end. All eyes were on leaders like new captain Kezie Apps, and playmaker Maddie Studdon to guide New South Wales back into the contest.
As it turns out, there was a far more influential moment for the team in the sheds at half-time. Second-rower Holli Wheeler had been named on the bench in the clash against Queensland, and entered the battle in the 22nd minute.
Wheeler’s arrival on the field was a gamebreaker.
The final eight minutes of the half saw the Blues weather a Maroon-coloured storm. Tazmin Gray finally cracked the New South Wales defence, and drew first blood in North Sydney. The game was teetering on a knife’s edge.
Wheeler knew that the Blues had a match-winner in Studdon. On the way out onto the field, she delivered her a simple message: “This is your half now, own it.”
Studdon came alive in the second half, pulling the game into her own whirlwind of energy, and pushing the pace to her own tempo.
The Blues halfback was rewarded for her efforts on the scoreboard, as she sliced through Queensland’s defence for a try.
In the end, Studdon’s electric second half earned her the Nellie Doherty Medal for best on field, and scored the Blues their fourth straight Origin crown.
“Going into the sheds after that first half we were all really positive, we’d kept them out except for just one try even though they’d had so much of the possession, and I just kept saying to the girls “They’ve thrown everything at us, that’ll be the best they’re going to get”,” Wheeler told the Women’s Chronicle after the 14-4 victory.
“I got in Maddie’s ear at half-time, because I know that everyone has seen her have this kind of ‘fall from grace’ over the past twelve months, and I knew if I could rev her up enough she was going to change the game. Didn’t she ever. She was phenomenal.”
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As it turns out, while Studdon and young halves partner Dibbs may have affected the ten-point on the scoreboard, Wheeler’s commanding voice may have been the difference maker when it mattered most in the state-vs-state rivalry.
“I didn’t realise what sort of impact I’d had when I came on, but a couple of the girls grabbed me during the game and told me “Keep going, keep pushing us,” and I just thought I’d stick to whatever I’d been doing because I wasn’t sure I’d done anything special,” Wheeler said.
“I don’t make 400 runs a game like Simaima [Taufa-Kauta], or seventy tackles like Hannah [Southwell], but I was just trying to be vocal and do my part. “To hear everyone say there was a shift in the game when I came on was insane, it’s very humbling.
“Andy [Blues coach Andrew Patmore] even gave me one of the game balls, and spoke really nicely about what I’d done. I was dumbfounded, because I thought I’d just played my game. All the feedback about my performance is something I’ll cherish forever.”
It’s not like Holli has a long time to sit back and think about the victory at North Sydney Oval, however.
Already the NRL Women’s Premiership is appearing on the horizon, and more recently she was named in the Jillaroos merit team last Monday.
Wheeler joined fellow CRL Newcastle stars Isabelle Kelly and Hannah Southwell on the list, and will link up with seven more of her Blues teammates. While it’s still two years away, the 2021 World Cup is very much on the Wallsend-based forward’s mind.
“I’d love to be in consideration for the World Cup, I know I’m a bit older than some of the other girls so it depends if my body holds up over the next years, but I know if I’m still fit enough and playing well enough I can be in the mix,” Wheeler said.
Wheeler’s next testing grounds comes in the national competition in August. The Blues commander has re-signed with the St George Dragons ahead of the 2019 campaign, re-linking with Kezie Apps and the rest of her clubmates.
While Holli has seen Southwell and Howard – two of her Newcastle compatriots who had undertaken the long drives from the Hunter to Illawarra during 2018 – depart to the Rick Stone-helmed Sydney Roosters this year, Wheeler revealed she never thought twice about giving away her spot in the Red V in the NRLW’s second year.
“I know that Stoney is taking over the Roosters this season, and I have a good relationship with him and he said to me that he would respect my decision if I stayed loyal to the Dragons,” the Dragons player of the year said.
“I loved playing for the Dragons last year, and then my grandmother is a massive part of my life and she’s a huge St George fan so it gives us another bond about me playing for the team. It was a no brainer for me in the end to re-sign.
“It may be a little more lonely on the drives, but I’m hoping that there’ll be a few more players from around here, or on my way, that I can collect on the way, but I don’t mind putting the music on and having a sing on the way down.
“The weirdest thing will be playing against Howie and Hannah for the first time, I’ve never faced them before. I might have to play a few mindgames with Hannah, try to fish-hook her or eye gouge her. No idea how to stop her otherwise,” Wheeler laughed.
Wheeler next takes to the field for Newcastle in the NSW Women’s Premiership. The second-placed side have won seven of their nine games. They next face the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs at Belmore Sports Ground on Saturday afternoon.