Public school girls crack the rugby code
With the help of former ACT Brumbies player and Goulburn High School teacher Ash Mewburn, public school girls are making big leaps in rugby. Glenn Cullen reports.
12 July 2023
When former Batlow Technology School student Sharni Williams captained Australia to inaugural rugby sevens gold at the 2016 Rio Olympics, it lit a spark for the sport in the state’s public school system.
Seven years later, the code is going from strength to strength as the best young schoolgirls in the country eye off the ultimate prize of a place in the 2032 Aussie Olympic team in Brisbane.
Six girls from NSW public schools were selected for the first-ever national sevens schoolgirls’ squad at the Australian championships in Sydney last week.
The team will be coached by someone with deep roots in the public school system, Goulburn High School teacher Ash Mewburn.
A former captain of the University of Canberra AON sevens team and Brumbies Super W flyhalf, Ms Mewburn’s coaching bona fides were on display when she led the NSW All Schools opens girls’ team to the national title.
In an extraordinary display of dominance, her side racked up 408 points across nine games, only conceding one try for the entire tournament. The team won the final against Queensland 30-0.
Ms Mewburn watched on in delight as Australia claimed gold in Brazil seven years ago and will play a significant role in shaping the country’s young talent looking to go for gold on home turf in nine years’ time.
“That (Rio Games) was a turning point in Australian rugby sevens,” Ms Mewburn said.
“Now, a lot of females coming through can see where the end goal is. More importantly, you can achieve it through the public school system now. There’s a genuine pathway from local high schools right through to national level.”
Ms Mewburn lives that top-to-tail ethos. She brought the girls rugby program to Goulburn High School, coached the state team and is now in charge of the national schoolgirls’ side.
“For that I have to thank Goulburn High School principal Yogesh Mani for always supporting my rugby sevens goals and ambitions through the South Coast Sport Unit and NSWCHS associations,” she said.
The national squad of 19 will train in Casuarina in September and has trial games against a Rugby Australia program side that also features two NSW public school students. The Rugby Australia side will compete in the Youth Commonwealth Games team in Trinidad and Tobago next month.
The final Australian School Girls squad will participate in a Global Youth Games tournament expected to feature teams including New Zealand and Samoa on the Gold Coast in December.
“They are all incredible young ladies – the genuine future of the sport in this country,” Ms Mewburn said.
“And that’s why I love my job, creating positive relationships and team culture through rugby sevens to bring out the best in these players.”
In the Australian Schoolboys’ selection trials, Isaiah Kolopeaua broke the dominance of the private schools to claim a spot in the 15-a-side squad.
The rugged prop from Ashfield Boys High School will feature in matches against schoolboys from Tonga, New Zealand and the Australian Barbarians in late September.
National team public school rugby representatives
Girls Youth Commonwealth Games squad
- Anaia Cruikshank (Northern Beaches Secondary College, Mackellar Campus)
- Damita Betham (Ambervale High School)
Australian Schoolgirls squad
- Lili Boyle (Narrabeen Sports High School)
- Waiaria Ellis (Castle Hill High School)
- Chaela-lee Falls (Greystanes High School)
- Pyper Marchant (Castle Hill High School)
- Manua Moleka (Hills Sports High School)
- Chanel Williams (Matraville Sports High School)
- Coach: Ash Mewburn
Girls U/16s Australian merit team
- Khyliah Gray (Northern Beaches Secondary College, Mackellar Campus)
- Rastalia Smith (Endeavour Sports High School)
- Isaiah Kolopeaua (Ashfield Boys High School)
- Jacob John (Chifley College Bidwell Campus)
- Sosaia Kaufisi (Chester Hill High School)
- Assistant coach: Mark O’Brien (Muswellbrook High School)
- Manager: Jed Peisley (Deputy Principal, Kempsey High School)