When China Polata made her NRLW debut with the Brisbane Broncos, it was star teammate Julia Robinson who presented her with her jersey.
And when Polata makes her State of Origin debut for the Harvey Norman Queensland Maroons next Thursday, it will be Robinson’s jersey that she adopts in what is set to be the biggest game of her career so far.
Robinson – a sensation for the Maroons on the wing in the opening game of this year’s Origin series – was ruled out of Game II in Townsville through suspension, opening the door for Polata – who was 18th player in Game I – to make a most deserved debut.
And while the Mackay Cutters fullback and centre is going into the arena to play her own game and make her own mark, she is also determined to do Robinson’s jersey proud.
“Some people don’t know this but when I was at the Broncos and made my debut last year, she was the person who gave me my jersey,” Polata said.
“I remember when she did, she grabbed the jersey off (coach Kelvin Wright) before our captain’s run. She said, ‘this girl’s been training so hard’ and gave me a lot of props. She talked about how I was coming back from my injury.
“I never realised she was out there watching me like that. She would offer bits of advice and she would help me with getting under the high balls… she just brings a beautiful energy and vibe to training and the team.
“It meant so much and then two weeks ago at Origin in Sydney, we came back from our morning team walk and we were having a little chat and she told me she was proud of me and that I deserve to be in this team.
“It just made me feel so much more grateful for the people that were around me.
“Having players that believed in me that I didn’t think would have the time of day to give me a glance... it was an unreal feeling to hear that from someone like Julia Robinson, who is not only an absolute tank on the field but the most amazing person off field. It was amazing.
“I genuinely look up to Robbo and how she plays and how she has a second gear. She will always go 110 per cent, no matter who she is playing for.
“I just hope I do her proud, as well as the state. I hope I can play my game and make Queensland proud and let Robbo know her jersey is safe.”
Polata has gone from strength to strength in 2023. She first moved from her hometown of Brisbane to live in Townsville, in the hopes of getting outside of her comfort zone.
She was then picked up by the Mackay Cutters in the BMD Premiership where she had a stunning season, before signing with the North Queensland Cowboys for their upcoming inaugural NRLW season.
Polata was then selected as the Maroons 18th player for Game I. To now be named on the wing for Game II was no surprise to those in the game given her BMD Premiership form, but for the young back, it was an anxious wait to hear if she was in the squad yet again.
“I was actually at work last week, on Tuesday or Wednesday and I was in my year seven maths class,” the Kirwan State High School teacher aide said.
“I was working and then I saw (Queensland coach Tahnee Norris) had called me and I’d missed it. I knew she would call us some time that week and I was like, ‘oh my God, I can’t believe I missed her call'.
“I spoke to the teacher and then I ducked out and was trying to call her in the staff room. She didn’t answer so I sent a text and she called me back and I ran out of class back to the staff room.
“It started off as a casual conversation about NRLW pre-season, my body, how I’ve been going and then she said, ‘are you ready to go?’.
“She said, ‘I hope you’re ready to go because I’ll be naming you in that starting wing spot'.
“I didn’t say much. Gradually throughout the conversation, I said thank you but I just couldn’t believe it was happening. I went back into my class and I was just smiling.”
Polata will head into camp with the rest of the Harvey Norman Queensland Maroons today - Friday, June 16 - with the team set to do their full preparations in Townsville ahead of the game on Thursday, June 22, at Queensland Country Bank Stadium.
She is not feeling the nerves yet, but is feeling a lot of confidence having been in the team environment for Game I.
Polata soaked up everything around her ahead of the series opener and she said that time with Norris, the coaching staff and the playing group will be a massive help ahead of her debut.
Polata: 'I'm still striving for a Queensland jersey'
“I personally didn’t feel any less part of the team, I didn’t feel like I wasn’t playing,” she said of Game I.
“All the girls made me feel so welcome and Tahnee would say that while I was 18th player at the time, I had to stay ready, I could come on at any minute.
“I went in with the full mentality that I was going to take the field. I trained wherever they wanted to put me - I was training at wing, fullback, back row.
“I took the time to soak in being in Origin camp but also learnt the different positions to the best of my ability so that I’d be confident enough to go into that position if I needed to, 100 per cent ready.
“Being part of that squad, it was a really big learning curve for me. I got to prepare like I was taking the field. The girls were amazing, the coaching staff were just great.
“I never felt segregated, alone or by myself. It’s amazing how inclusive everyone was with everything. I loved camp.
“Now that I’m going to be making my debut, it’s definitely helped get the jitters out and I know what’s expected.
“I’m confident in myself and hopefully Tahnee is confident in me that I’ll turn up on the 22nd and put on a show as much as I can.”
Like Robinson, Polata will play outside of experienced centre Shenae Ciesiolka and is hoping to pick her brain, as well as Robinson’s, with the 25-year-old expected to come in for game day.
Polata said, however, despite her admiration for those around her, she knew she couldn’t stray too far from her own game and her recent form.
She has her own strengths to bring into Origin and is excited to take on New Souths Wales.
“I want to bring my aggression,” Polata said.
“I love contact, I love getting dirty, I love the hard carries. I love being in the front line of the action.
“It will be different on the wing but my main focus and goal is to get under the high ball, catch it and run straight. I don’t know any other direction than straight.
“I want to take those tough carries and run hard. I want to run through a brick wall – do it for Queensland, the girls and everyone at home.
"It’s up here in my adopted hometown now so even more reason to go out there full blaze.”
Polata’s parents will fly up for the occasion and she is also expecting to have a few family friends in the crowd as well as her Townsville-based aunty, uncle and cousins who helped her settle into the area when she moved up last November.
There are a number of north Queenslanders in the Maroons team, including Bowen-born Shaniah Power, Tully’s Romy Teitzel and Mackay’s Emma Manzelmann.
With the Maroons already up 1-0 after claiming Game I in Sydney, the team are hoping the crowd will get behind them as they look to end the two-game series undefeated.
And for Polata, it’s almost poetic that she’ll get to make her debut in Townsville.
It’s at the stadium that will be her new NRLW home base, in the city that gave her a fresh start.
“I definitely feel I got out of my comfort zone this year,” she said.
“I say to my parents all the time I’m so happy in Townsville with the connections I’ve made and the person I’ve found myself to be. I’m more driven than ever.
“I can’t believe my effort to move up here by myself, away from home, with no idea of what I was going to do, making Queensland and the Cows, it’s just made my year.
“It’s the best decision I’ve made in my 21 years of living. Now making my debut in Townsville, playing at the stadium I call home for the Cowboys, after coming off injury and moving away from home, it makes it all that much sweeter.
“To be in Townsville, my adopted home, with Queensland supporters, it’s going to be that next step, that next level. I can’t wait to run out and see maroon. It’s going to be amazing.
“I’m really proud of myself and I’m so grateful I listened to that little voice. I don’t think I would be here if I didn’t listen to that little voice.
“It means so much more than I could have ever known it to mean.”
Main image: China Polata at captain's run for the Harvey Norman Queensland Maroons ahead of Game I. Photo: Tim Cossens/QRL