End draws near for Jillaroos legends
It represents a new dawn for the women’s game in PNG, but for Jillaroos veteran Renae Kunst, Saturday’s historic clash with the PNG Orchids in Port Moresby is the beginning of the end.
Kunst and Steph Hancock are fighting to keep off a growing band of hot young talent coming into the Jillaroos' set-up so that they can end their own glittering careers with a third World Cup campaign in November, culminating with the final at Suncorp Stadium on December 2.
Six new faces travelled with the Jillaroos team to Port Moresby today (Thursday, September 21) with coach Brad Donald tasked with reducing his current extended squad of 40 players to 22 by the time the tournament kicks off.
Both Kunst and Hancock have stated repeatedly this year that this will be their final seasons playing top level rugby league, which for Kunst – who debuted at the 2008 World Cup – makes experiences such as the trip to PNG even more special.
She gets emotional even considering the prospect of bowing out in front of friends and family at the end of the year but says for now she is determined to savour every moment she gets to spend as a Jillaroo.
I probably feel like the most fortunate player in the team to be honest - Renae Kunst
“It's even more important for me now to make sure I'm enjoying absolutely every moment of being in camp because it's near the end now, so it's important to enjoy the little things as well as playing the game,” Kunst told NRL.com.
“I probably can't imagine a better way to go out, should I make that final World Cup team and it's on home soil and for all my family to be there too.
“I probably get emotional even thinking about it because they've been there from the very beginning.
“I always talk about my success being the team behind the team which for me is my family. It is a perfect way for them to be there – hopefully, should I make that team – that's the goal.
“I'm under no illusion. There are no shoo-ins in this team. We're certainly going to have to fight for every inch to be named in that 22 which is only going to make that team a hell of a team come the end of it so that's really exciting as well.”
Kunst and Hancock are the only survivors from the Jillaroos' 2008 World Cup campaign and provide the link between the game's foundation stars and those who are enjoying a far greater public profile in recent years.
On the surface, it would appear that the depth of the national team has never been greater, but Kunst said it was important to remember the girls who paved the way and their own standing as representative footballers.
“I've been fortunate enough to be a part of that history where the girls I had an opportunity to play with – your Karyn Murphys, Nat Dwyers, Tahnee Norris, Millie Edwards, Ronnie White – these are probably names that girls will never have heard of but wonderful players in their own right,” Kunst said.
“I find it really hard to compare and say that this is the best standard because those girls were unbelievable players.
“I just feel so privileged and fortunate to be a part of that era back then playing with those girls and an opportunity also to play with the future stars of the game.
“I probably feel like the most fortunate player in the team to be honest.”
And while she may not realise it, Kunst has taken the place of those trailblazers in the eyes of her team-mates and coach Brad Donald.
“Steph and Renae have said to me that it's good these young girls are coming through because it makes them remember the spark in the belly when they first got when they came into camp,” Donald said.
“Girls like Steph and Renae that have gone through, they looked up to those girls and they probably don't realise now how much they're looked up to.
“They've become the heroes of the girls that are coming into the team."
As for her maiden PNG experience, Kunst concedes it is a largely unknown prospect but one she is confident will live with her long after she has retired.
“We have plenty of PNG women playing in our Brisbane competition and in the Sydney competition and there are some quality players amongst them so I imagine this national team will be no different and they'll be coming out there to prove a point," she said.
“What a wonderful experience too, to be in conjunction with the Prime Minister's XIII, so it's going to be a wonderful experience.
“We play just before the men, so I imagine there'll be a big crowd and possibly one of the biggest crowds we'll ever get to play in front of.
“It's another opportunity to play rugby league against a team that's playing in the World Cup this year.
“It's the first year that PNG will be part of the World Cup so they're a little bit of an unknown but it's certainly going to be a good battle to see where they're actually at.”