STUART’S REP RETURN KEY TO CANTERBURY’S CAMPAIGN
In a Canterbury squad brimming with new faces, Jenna Stuart’s experience is set to prove invaluable at this week’s NZRL National Women’s Tournament.
But the Burnham Chevaliers fullback/halfback could be forgiven for feeling like a rookie herself after nearly a decade away from the representative scene.
Once a Canterbury regular, Stuart estimates 2010 as the last time she donned the red and black jersey. Since then she has had a stint living in Brisbane, before returning to Christchurch and having one club season with a combined Hornby-Burnham team in between the birth of her two children.
Stuart has pulled on the boots again this year, however, starring for the undefeated Chevaliers.
“I love the club I’m at, everyone’s really supportive. They’re all about family and whanau, there’s no negativity around,” Stuart says.
“It’s good to get some fitness – that’s what drove me back really. You don’t look after yourself so much when you’ve got the kids, you lose focus on keeping yourself [fit]. That was my primary driver and I’ve really enjoyed being back so far.”
The importance of family and keeping active are recurring themes when talking to Stuart about her involvement in rugby league, which is not limited to playing.
“[I want to] be a positive role model for my kids. My son has just turned five and he’s started playing league in a nursery team [at Rolleston Warriors] which I coach.
“I want to show that sport is about having fun, enjoyment and getting active, and that you don’t have to have all the negative connotations that are sometimes associated with sports. That it can just be about family and fun and activity.
“My daughter as well, girls can do anything boys can do. She’s a bit younger but she’s still keen as.”
Blenheim-born Stuart began playing as a junior with Woolston Rams, before playing senior football and breaking into the Canterbury side at Hornby Panthers.
If the 34-year-old has any trepidation about squaring off against the best women’s players in New Zealand after such a lengthy absence, she doesn’t have to look far for inspiration.
Her dad’s cousin is Mary Brennan, the Woolston and Canterbury stalwart who won selection for the Kiwi Ferns’ 1999 tour of Australia aged 42.
“She made [the Kiwi Ferns] as a mature lady, which is quite an achievement and quite motivational,” Stuart says.
“She’s been in my life since I was a kid, so that was my initial reason for playing league when I was small.”
Despite standing at a diminutive 159cm (5-foot-2), Stuart thrives on the physical side of the game and pinpoints defence as one of her strengths.
“I guess I just like to get involved. I like kicking as well but tackling is one of the best individual tests and challenges, so it’s a good way to gauge how you’re going.
“I’ve always loved tackling since I was little and it’s something we hold quite proud in our family – good solid tacklers.”
Given her level of experience and the abundance of youth in the squad, Stuart admits she will probably take on a leadership role within the Canterbury team “by default” at the National Tournament in Auckland.
But playing in a key position, along with her vocal style, add to her status as a genuine linchpin for Canterbury this weekend.
“I like to talk a lot on the field and that I think that helps support some of the girls that maybe don’t know a whole lot about league and are still learning as they go,” Stuart explains.
“As a fullback in particular – which is where (Canterbury coach) Mike (Linton) is going to put me for a lot of it – to be sort of a defensive marshal and guide the team that way, and hopefully make the tackles that I need to make.”
Canterbury head north with a semi-final appearance as a minimum aim after consecutive third-place finishes at the 2017-18 NZRL National Women’s Tournaments.
But Stuart says the team will be leaving it all out on Pulman Park in a bid to uphold their recent record of high achievement – and hopefully spring an upset or two against the competition’s North Island heavyweights.
“I don’t know what to expect, but we’ve definitely got a good gel in the team. It’s a good feeling, everyone’s really committed and I think we’ve got a really good chance this year.
“We’ve got lots of young, enthusiastic and talented girls, and a few of the more older, experienced players. I’m just excited to see what we can bring and to experience it again.
“It’s great to hear (Canterbury) are always doing quite positively and we traditionally come in as underdogs as well. We’ve only got a small competition down here, so it’s a small pool but everyone’s really passionate and got a lot of heart and loves the game.
“When we pull together, we can do some pretty amazing things. I’d expect that we can do as good, if not better than that this year.”