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Where are they now? Heather Ballinger

One of the Queensland outback's pioneering elite female rugby league stars has come full circle as she looks to make her mark guiding country kids to realise their opportunities.

Heather Ballinger paved what to some would be an unfathomable path from Longreach to the top level of the game, culminating in 11 matches for Queensland and 12 for the Jillaroos and representing Brisbane Broncos in the inaugural NRLW season in 2018.

So many relocations, flights just to get a game - some that never eventuated - blood, sweat and tears, but she would do it all over again now seeing all the opportunities available to the modern-day hopeful.

"I wish I was 20 years younger still," Ballinger said.

"If I could go back there... these girls can now make a career out of it, give up their full time jobs and focus on football and that be their life.

"A lot of us were juggling the two and that's what burnt us out, burning candles at both ends, but we did it because we loved it."

Throughout her footy career, which ended in 2020, 'Hef' worked in policing but recently called time after 19 years in the force, taking up the opportunity to escape the hustle and bustle to more laidback surrounds.

While the family farm is no longer, Ballinger decided to escape to Winton, 1150km northwest of Brisbane, where her sister calls home, to make the most of a lifestyle she's much more comfortable with.

"I just got sick of the traffic. I got sick of the busy lifestyle of the city," she said.

"It's a small community, it's community focused.

Get to know: Heather Ballinger

"I love watching the sunsets and the sunrises when you go to and from every day, when you get up for whatever you're doing.

"My sister said the junior comp out here is really struggling and I said, 'well, why can't I come out and see what I can do?'

"Her kids are getting older and, and obviously she wants every opportunity for her kids and every kid out here as well. I remember as a kid we never had it."

Ballinger jumped right in, and with a crew of four from Winton made a few eight-hour round trips to complete coaching qualifications to back up her wealth of knowledge.

"You really do appreciate what people have to do to have a go at things, and when you get an opportunity you want to take it," she said.

"I'm helping out with the under 11s. It's very interesting.

"They've been really good, they've been opening and willing to hear what I had to say and I let them go and do their thing and 'hey, let's do this a little bit better', you know.

"Most of them are boys, but I do have a niece and I want to encourage her to get on board.

"But once you get to that age group of 12, there's nothing out here for (girls)."

She's even filled a much-needed role as a match official. 

Ballinger ran touch lines all season for the Central West Rugby League, including the grand final, and the Outback Senior Muster.

Perhaps where her footy nous and professional skills are coming to the fore most however are in the community volunteering with the local Blue EDGE police youth program.

The program brings physical activities together with life skills sessions and mentorship to help young people succeed and few know better than Ballinger what a successful one looks like.

"I introduced a football sort of drill for (the trainer) and all that to get them to work together as a team, working to your weakest link and things like that," she said.

"You can be strong, but you got to also help encourage your weakest, and they really enjoyed it apparently and I enjoyed actually seeing them grow.

"Even at the top level, if you're hurting and struggling, you tell your mate next to you and they drag you with them.

"You choose to keep going or you put on your brakes and then eventually get subbed.

"At the end of the day, I'm telling you, for Queensland if someone came to me and said 'I've hurt my ankle, I can't run so hard,' I'd be like, 'let's work with you, let's go keep that front line of defence'."

She sees it in the 2023 Harvey Norman Queensland Maroons and she will be the loudest fan in Winton when they take to Queensland Country Bank Stadium in Townsville on Thursday night.

Not least in the likes of Keilee Joseph, the fellow member of the front rowers' club who earned player of the match honours on State of Origin debut in Game I.

"She looked up to us a lot. I know I had a lot of dealings with her when she was coming through her ropes... and the best thing I probably did was to take her down to the Sydney Roosters, who gave her that opportunity," Ballinger said.

"I try to teach the kids here that it's your work rate, it's the quiet things, the unnoticeable things that you do as an achiever, that causes great results.

"Queensland won because of people like her that just did her job and worked hard."

Ballinger is quick to remind people who aren't aware that the big stage and profiles female players enjoy today is not how it always has been.

Speaking to a recent International Women's Day function, she took the chance to emphasise just how much toil went into the decade and more before 'State of Origin' and before women had the prime time opportunity to shine.

"What the girls are getting now, I never had, nor did the girls before me have, and people don't understand a group of us pushed really hard to get this up and running and give opportunities," she said.

"It was a slow process and now the more in the background it has been supported, from the local clubs, we can now open it up to a 10-team NRL because we've got the potential there of girls to play with skill.

"So it's come a long way.

"It's good to see (Origin) has grown to a two-gamer. I would be nice for it to eventually be a three-gamer, but I know it takes time.

"I really do hope the girls come home strong and finish it.

"Bring it on, and obviously the men, hopefully they get a clean slate too, so we'll both be back on the winning board."

Acknowledgement of Country

Queensland Rugby League respects and honours the Traditional Custodians of the land and pay our respects to their Elders past, present and future. We acknowledge the stories, traditions and living cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on the lands we meet, gather and play on.

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