HILDA WAYNE & CATHERINE GRAUE
| ABC | Pacific Beat | Extract
MELBOURNE - St George Illawarra Dragons recruit Elsie Albert considers herself lucky to have not had rubbish thrown at her by fans while playing rugby in her home country of Papua New Guinea.
The 24-year-old is the rugby-mad nation's first homegrown player to be picked up by an NRLW team, and is part of the squad named for today's first match of the season against the Sydney Roosters.
But it hasn't been an easy journey for Albert, who started out as a boxer and only began playing the sport two years ago, when she left home to study at university.
Growing up in PNG's rugged highlands region, culture and religion had meant that it was mostly unthinkable for girls and women to play rugby league.
“People, especially men would say that girls are not supposed to play rugby," Albert told the ABC.
“'You ladies are just wasting your time. Just get married and have babies and stay at home.'”
But Elsie Albert said the women who went before her, who she calls ‘the pioneers’, started proving them wrong.
"They were the ones who were being ridiculed by the men, when they were playing on the field. They'd throw, like Coke bottles, or water bottles onto the field," she said.
"Sometimes they would hit the players."
Albert said that all changed last year when the national women's team, the PNG Orchids, played in two Tests against England at home.
As captain, Albert led the Orchids as they secured the PNG women's first-ever test match win.
She said that game helped change attitudes in the country, the only place in the world where rugby league is the national sport.
"Me standing on the field and I could hear men folks also saying 'go the Orchids'. That meant a lot," Albert said.
"I'm glad I'm being a part of this change to change the minds, changing perspective, changing the way the men folk think about women," she said.
Albert is one of a number of new players picked up by the Dragons, who were last year's runners-up, and are being tipped by many to go all the way this season.
She will be joined by former Jillaroos prop and captain, Stephanie Hancock, who has become one of her good friends.
"We have a special relationship on the field. She plays on the left, I play on the right and we're the props, and she's my role model," Albert said.
"She wanted to make me feel welcome, being new to the scene of the NRLW and I'm just thankful that she will be going with me to the Dragons".
Dragons NRLW coach Daniel Lacey said Albert's debut was an historic moment for PNG rugby.
"There's no other way to describe Elsie other than an out-and-out trailblazer for women's sport in Papua New Guinea," he said.
"She has had a lot of obstacles and hurdles thrown her way over the years but now she can safely say she's the first Papua New Guinean native to earn an NRLW contract."
Elsie Albert's hard hits saw her earn the nickname "The Jukebox" in the World Cup 9s last year, and was named Most Valuable Player for the South Logan Magpies who she played with this year.
Her signing is not going unnoticed in PNG, where it is predicted the Dragons will gain passionate new supporters as a result.
"Elsie is an exceptional leader and plays with passion. She is breaking new ground all the time, doing very well for herself but setting benchmarks for women's rugby league in PNG too," PNG Orchids chair Ruth Waram said.