After more than one decade playing at the elite level, one of the game’s most decorated players has announced she is hanging up her boots as a Queensland State of Origin player.
Heather Ballinger, who played 11 games for her state over 11 years, including last year’s agonising Origin loss at North Sydney Oval, said the time was right for her to step away from this level of the game to focus on her life and career off the field.
“I know, it feels really weird,” Ballinger said, confirming the news.
“Long hours at work (are part of the reason), but work is not the only reasoning to it.
“To sum it up, I am 38 years old, I am happy with what I have achieved so far.
“I’d love to go another round and absolutely give it to New South Wales, especially being in our home ground, but it’s a long commitment ... I have done it for 11 years.”
In a way, Ballinger’s decision is a reminder that while the women’s game and the meaningful opportunities being made available to female players continues to grow at a rapid pace, there’s still a lot of sacrifice involved for those who want to make it at the top level.
The Harvey Norman Queensland Maroons prop has been a fixture on the representative scene for a number of years and retired from national duties with a player of the match performance for the Jillaroos in 2018.
Retiring Ballinger wins player of the match
Her dedication and effort were rewarded with selection in various representative teams, including for Queensland, a team that has meant so much to her, she played the majority of the 2017 match with a broken hand.
Most people know of her background as a Broncos-loving kid from Longreach who would beg her parents to run the generator so she could watch Darren Lockyer play.
Others are also aware of the fact she used to trained with the Northern Pride’s men’s team on her way to winning the QRL’s Female Representative Player of the Year award in 2015.
But there’s still plenty to find out about the woman they call Hef.
Get to know: Heather Ballinger
While she's not 100 per cent sure whether or not she'll run onto the field again at a local level, in honour of her 11 games for Queensland – here’s a list of 11 questions and answers with the one and only Heather Ballinger.
- What are some memories of your first game for Queensland game? (Penrith, 2009)
“When you get your jersey for the very first time and you are looking at it, you think ‘wow, here’s that thing I have been chasing, the opportunity to represent your state’. It was nerve-wracking, ‘cause I came off the bench and I remember Tahnee (Norris) very well, she was in the middle with us and she said ‘stay calm, relax, enjoy it, it’ll be a high-intensity game, but if you do everything that you trained to do, that’s all we can ask for’, so I went out there and had a blinder.”
- What is your best on-field moment from your debut?
“I remember this, Elianna Walton, she was one of their strongest forwards and she ran straight at (Jo) Barrett and I when we were defending on the try line and it was just like the perfect tackle. Without having to do anything, Barrett and I, our shoulders met and we drove Elianna backwards as opposed to her driving us backwards and over the try line and scoring the try. I love that tackle, it was perfect timing, and I wasn’t that big and neither was Barrett and Elianna was one of their strongest runners and we thought ‘how are we going to stop this?’ – but we did.”
- Some notable injuries you had to overcome?
“You are not talking about my broken hand are you? I didn’t even know that I had done it, it happened within the first two minutes of the game, I just did a normal tackle on Maima (Simaima Taufa) and I don’t know what happened, I felt a little pain in my hand and thought ‘that’s not good’ and kept going and NSW scored and I thought ‘I have to see the trainer ‘cause there is something wrong with my hand, it’s not right’, but I had to keep on playing because that’s just what we do, we keep going. But it got to the point where I couldn’t even grip, and I thought, ‘there’s definitely something wrong here’ and we had a scrum and the trainer came out and saw me and took me off, and the physio turned to me and I said ‘it’s broken isn’t it?’ and she said ‘yep, but we’ll strap it up and see how you go’, so I said ‘righto!’”
- What is your favourite on-field memory? (Queensland 34 def NSW 10, 2012)
“The game where I got player of the match in 2012. Some big hits, not that I felt it or planned on doing it, they were just tackles that went nicely and I got rewarded with player of the match. Obviously, it’s nice when you play really hard and you play your heart out for your mates out there and you get recognised for that work.”
- What is your favourite off-field memory about being in the Queensland team?
“The friendships that you form – I have formed a really good friendship with Renae (Kunst) and Barrett out of all of this and you are always in touch. But probably, the whole team being called Maroons, you probably don’t realise the importance of it, to be representing your state. We were the Brolgas back then, and then we became the Queensland Women and then you are identifying yourself as male or female and you do think, ‘why do you need to do that, we are the Maroons, why can’t we be called the Maroons?’ – but now to finally have that change and run out in the Maroons uniform and play at a State of Origin, it’s great.”
United in Maroon - Jersey reveal
- What has been your biggest achievement while representing Queensland?
“I think my biggest achievement for Queensland is playing 11 years straight without missing a single match. Normally, you will have something come along and changes your life and what you do out on the field, your mates are doing it with you and if you win player of the match or score five tries, you have your days, but the achievement for me would be going for 11 years straight without missing a game.”
- A Queensland team mate who has taught you the most?
“You learn a lot off a lot of players and you have the opportunity to play with some great players out there, but I would say Karyn (Murphy). (She is) very humble in what she does, and you can always go and talk to her about something whether you were a forward, back or whatever - it doesn’t matter, she just knows the right way to talk to you and help get the best out of you.”
- The biggest challenge you overcame to play for Queensland?
“The biggest challenge was keeping myself open and available for selection. Obviously, there was the time I was in Cairns and I was flying in all the time and being told the best fitness was match fitness, so when the comp up there folded, that was my biggest challenge. 'Where do I go to now?’, so I drove to Townsville for a year after 11-12 hours shifts and then that comp folds and again I am ‘where do I go from here?’ and so then you start flying down to Brisbane and you are flying down there on forfeits and it’s just eating the money out of your pocket and you weren’t getting anything back from that. The travel was the biggest challenge, the long distances and getting off the plane and being able to train or play.”
- What is your advice for players experiencing the boom in women’s rugby league right now?
“You have to be able to spread your time – if not evenly, but don’t get so focused on the one thing and make it all about that. You know you have to work, because it pays your bills, so you have your work time, you know you want to play footy for Queensland, so you know you have to commit to those training camps, but also be mindful you have to spend time with yourself, spend that time with your family. And if you have all this balanced out, you will be able to succeed to do what you want, there is no such thing as you can’t do it."
- What is your advice for young players coming into rugby league right now?
“A technical tip for players starting out is to work on your core strength. Do core strength! Forget the heavy weights and all that, if you can have all the core strength there, then everything else will fall into place. Your tackling will come out well and you won’t have back issues. For the really young ones just starting out, don’t ever think that you can’t do it. Go out there and have fun. You are learning the game. Listen to what your coaches have to say. Every coach will have something different to say, that’s fine – listen to what they say and pick out what works for you.”
- What does the future hold for Hef – both within and outside of rugby league?
“I would like to sit and enjoy (watching) it, and definitely as a mentor and I want to get into coaching. So, I am trying to sort out my coaching certificate, but I am finding it hard to find the time ‘cause of travel. But definitely I’d like to provide mentoring to those girls. Outside of rugby league, enjoy life – you have your weekends back which I am not used to. I think I will go camping and get back to my inner self. My first holiday, my trip would be to go camping at Mooloolaba. I want to get a camper van and travel Australia. Enjoy what we have here.”