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Touch football gave me the skills I needed to succeed

I first started playing touch football when I was a child. 

I have always played it, since six or seven years old. I love the game. I don't think there's been a year I haven't played touch; I even played when I was over 20 weeks pregnant with my first child. It's just part of my life and always has been. 

I love the sport; for the people, the speed of the game, the reactive work. I also love the sport for the foundation it provided me to succeed in rugby league.

Over recent years I have played State of Origin for touch twice; I played in 2016 and again in 2018, both times winning the series. I was even lucky enough to be named the Most Valuable Player in 2016. 

I haven't played for Australia in touch, yet. I could've this year for the World Cup, but I honestly needed to scale back - much to the Aussie footy coaching staff's happiness.

As much as they love us playing touch, as well as rugby league, the amount I do was pushing the limits... my strength and conditioning coach was very happy I'm scaling back. 

As far as representative honours go, I've played nearly every year down in the National Touch League, from playing in my local regional teams, to playing in the elite teams.

The last time I played was 2018 for Central Queensland Bulls T-League side, which is essentially an under-20 team with the exception of up to six players aged over 20. I think we figured out I was 16 years older than our youngest player.

That was probably my most successful year at National Touch League. We got all the way to the grand final for the first time, but unfortunately lost in a drop off. It was heart breaking, but so exciting at the same time.

This year it took all of my effort not to play. I had plenty of people asking me to play because of how well we'd done the year before, but I knew with how much rugby league we've got going on. I had to say no.

I really struggled last year; being a big year of touch with State of Origin, it added a lot of time I spent away from home with all the added competitions, camps and training weekends that come with playing at representative levels.

So this year I decided to play touch at home, but not play any representative stuff.  I have to give myself back some weekends and some time with my family. 

Some of the girls who were in my Queensland Origin team last year are over at the World Cup at the moment. They've done fantastic. I've tried to get on and watch their games and from what I've seen they're doing really well.

The fire is absolutely burning for me to be there; even my husband, Matt, said 'you know you're supposed to be there right?'

As much as it pains me not to be there, I know it's best for where I'm at now. I would really love it, but I guess that's something I can add that to the bucket list for the future years. 

The World Cup for touch is only every four years, so I'll be pushing 37 next time it comes around, but I don't see why I couldn't then? I doubt I'm going to be playing this higher level of rugby league at 37, so maybe that can be the next big goal for me? 

But this year I’m focusing on my rugby league and my family.

Touch football has helped my rugby league immensely. I would be nowhere near where I am if I didn't have a touch football background. 

To begin my rugby league journey, literally all I had to do was learn how to tackle, and learn the small ins and outs of the game.

If I didn't have all the ball skills and things like that from touch football, it would've been a much, much harder road for me because I only started playing rugby league when I was 24. 

So, if I didn't have essentially nearly 20 years of touch background, it would've been a much harder road and I highly doubt I'd be where I'm at now. 

Chelsea Baker in action for the Brisbane Broncos in 2018. Photo: NRL Images
Chelsea Baker in action for the Brisbane Broncos in 2018. Photo: NRL Images

Learning to tackle was easy for me but this is not something you ever stop learning; I guess the evolution of the tackle is always changing with all the new rules getting brought in. 

I'm constantly learning every single season. Learning the slightly different techniques, while holding some of the old factors. It's forever changing.

I've always been a physical person. I've always played touch, I've always played soccer. Even netball. I was already used to being run at, so the contact side was never a huge thing for me.

In touch, you get bowled over quite a bit. Even if you're not supposed to, people come in a bit rough.

I prefer to play mixed touch, so I'm always playing against guys and most of them aren't great at using their breaks. You could say I learnt how to hold my ground a long time ago.

I honestly don't remember my first tackle in league, but I'm sure I would've just bounced straight back up and loved every minute of it, and gone straight back for another. 

Touch football is invaluable for the skills you need for rugby league. Credit to the girls who come along who have no background in touch or footy.

It's really hard to teach an adult catch and pass drills; if they've not been a child growing up playing even social touch, it would be tough. There is a massive difference between having somebody who has grown up playing these sports and someone who hasn't. 

The skills you get from touch transfer so easily into footy. 

It's reactive work as well; getting players looking up at what's in front of them rather than looking at the person with the ball, catching it and just running straight. 

I'm currently in the middle of trying to teach my club team reactive work to make them look up at the defensive line, like what you have to do in touch; you constantly have to watch where the defenders are and go from there. 

In rugby league, a lot of people don't do this; they just catch and run at the line of bodies. We're trying to get these girls to see what those bodies are doing and react off that. It's quite difficult. But you can tell the difference between those with a touch background and those without one. 

It's such an advantage if you're going to play rugby league. I try to encourage everyone on my team to play touch to help improve their skills. 

Over the past few years, we've been trying really hard to grow our numbers in female rugby league in our region. I nag everyone I play touch with.

All the junior girls who play touch in Gladstone, I tell them all to come across.

We've got a few nines carnivals that happen throughout the year, they've got their school competitions. I tell them to 'just give it a go'. Nines is the perfect opportunity for these girls to come across. It's a couple more people on the field, but it's a bigger field so they're still going to be running like touch - they're just going to get tackled. 

I've had a few come across and do really well and a few who get tackled once and not want to play again. Again, it comes down to the individual. I've definitely convinced a few touch players over the years to come across and give footy a try. And there's more and more doing it. 

I know quite a few of the elite touch players are starting to play rugby league as well, so that's really good. That's the whole point of our Touch of League Nines series, hosted by Touch Football Australia, that is being played at the nationals in June, with the Queensland Baker Breakers and New South Wales Studdon Stars. 

It's a showcase of touch footballers coming across and playing footy - it's really exciting.

There are a few Australian touch players who have also played for Australia in rugby league and there is more coming through now. 

Chelsea Baker in action for the Jillaroos. Photo: NRL Images
Chelsea Baker in action for the Jillaroos. Photo: NRL Images

There's Tarryn Aiken, who was at our last Queensland training session; Tamika Upton - she was at one of our Broncos camps last year, she's now at our Queensland camps... she just needs to crack through the lower level rep teams and hopefully she can make it all the way.

The future of the game is bright with girls like this coming across.