Preparing for her World Cup debut, Wallaroos fly-half Bella McKenzie’s journey to the biggest stage in women’s rugby has taken several twists and turns, but it was a meeting off-field with a man through work that has made the biggest impression on the young player.
Joining the disability service What Ability — a company that utilizes athletes as care workers and features Wallabies prop Angus Bell — two years ago, McKenzie met the man that would change her perspective and her life.
Working with Sammy, a 21-year-old severely autistic man from Sydney, McKenzie would go on to create a bond that would see her gain what she labels a second family with the pair regularly meeting up around her work as a teacher’s aide and her growing rugby career.
“I used to work in disability as a carer for this boy Sammy who really changed my life,” McKenzie told ESPN. “I met him two years ago when I started working for the company, I think we just connected from the first shift I had with him.
“I became really close with him and his family, they’re kind of like my second family down here in Sydney. He’s been such a big part of my life, and especially his family as well, Tim and Michelle [Sammy’s parents] I’m really close with them, and I’ve even got his little name tattooed on me. I just want him to be with me wherever I go.
“He’s just taught me so much about myself. He doesn’t know who I am or what’s going on and his level of autism is pretty severe, so it’s just cool to hang out with him and do fun things like go to the beach hangout, cafes, chill and he’s just changed my perspective on life.”
Leaving the company at the start of the year when she traveled to New Zealand to play for the Matatu in the inaugural season of Super Rugby Aupiki, Sammy continues to be on the 23-year-old’s epic rugby journey, despite perhaps not truly understanding how impressive McKenzie’s rise has been.
A country girl from Lightning Ridge — a tiny NSW outback town with a population of less than 3,000 — McKenzie grew up with the Steeden in her hands as opposed to the Gilbert; a rugby league fan from a young age who dreamed of playing for the St George Dragons, McKenzie would imitate her favourite players in the backyard.
But it wouldn’t be until high school and watching the Australian women’s sevens claim gold at the 2016 Rio Olympics that she would set her sights on the Australian jersey.
“I grew up playing rugby league, I’m a rugby league tragic die hard, but I made the switch to rugby in high school and haven’t really looked back. I had no clue when I was growing up about women’s rugby or the Wallaroos. I wanted to play for the Dragons, I wanted to be Ben Hornby and Jamie Soward, those rugby league players.
“But then in high school I watched the Rio Olympics and heaps of girls got inspired, so I started playing rugby sevens from there.
“It’s cool now that little girls can see us on TV and see that it is something that they could possibly do in the future, it’s awesome now to be that role model for the little girls and boys coming through.”
McKenzie made an impression on rugby selectors in under a year, gaining selection for Australia in the 2017 Youth Commonwealth Games team where she’d win gold. But McKenzie says her love for the pub saw her make the switch to the 15s game and, after an impressive debut Super W season with the Waratahs, the playmaker made her Test debut against Japan.
“I just probably wasn’t fast enough or fit enough,” McKenzie told ESPN with a laugh. “I couldn’t train as hard as those seven girls do, they’re phenomenal athletes and I loved going to the pub on the weekend, so I thought playing down at Easts [Eastern Suburbs] would be better for me, switching to 15s and play a game of footy then have a beer at the pub after.
“But I got serious into 15s around 2018-2019 and kind of stopped going to the pub then, too. I got into the Wallaroos program when I was 18 or 19 and debuted when I was 19. I’m 23 now, a bit older and a bit more experienced.”
Building her presence for the Wallaroos off the bench in 2019, McKenzie’s rise was, like so many others, derailed by COVID, after all Test matches were cancelled in 2020 and 2021 and the Super W seasons were also badly affected. Determined to continue to grow her game, she’d take up an offer on the other side of the Tasman to be a part of the inaugural Super Rugby Aupiki season earlier this year.
While McKenzie’s six-week stint didn’t quite go to plan, it would still prove a learning experience.
“Going over there was a bit funny for me,” McKenzie told ESPN. “I had to quarantine on arrival and then I got injured as soon as I got out, so I missed the first two games of that competition, which was shortened due to COVID.
“I guess I didn’t really perform as well as I could, so at the time I thought it was a bit of a waste of their time, a waste of my time, I was injured, I wasn’t playing good footy, I was just in a bad head space.
“But I think looking back on it now, it’s definitely taught me some resilience and how to deal with things like setbacks, injury, non-selection and just things that I’d never really experienced before, and especially in a different country with no support network and not having my family or close friends with me too. It really just taught me resilience and a bit of character building.”
Returning midway through the Super W season, McKenzie hit her stride quickly with the Waratahs, implementing a strong kicking game as well as leadership and vision in the backline. But it took her a little longer to nail down the Wallaroos’ No. 10 jersey.
That was until she starred off the bench against the United States in the Pacific Nations Cup, McKenzie completely turning the tide of the game in the narrow defeat; from there, the fly-half role was hers.
One of the most important positions on the field, and under the most pressure, the 23-year-old relishes the opportunity to be a leader, to take control of her pack and bark out orders.
“I love it [playing fly-half],” McKenzie told ESPN. “I think I’ve always been a leader and a bit of a control freak at times, so it’s cool to be able to use off-field stuff on the field. I love to lead the team around the park and get us into the right areas, [to] be that playmaker. It’s so much fun, I just love playing footy and being out there with the girls and just doing my job to the best that I can.
“I’d like to think I’m talking the whole time and bossing the forwards around where to go and screaming at the nines when I want the pill [ball]. I love bossing around the forwards, they need direction, they need to be told where to go and that’s what they expect from me. So just helping them do their job, and when they do their job my job is so much easier.”
Now in New Zealand, preparing to run out against the Black Ferns in front of a record women’s rugby crowd on Saturday night, McKenzie is a long way from the small country town where her parents still live, but the small town won’t be far from mind when she dons the gold jersey in Auckland.
“Mum and dad are still in Walgett, they’re so proud of me and happy for me, they never really pushed me as a kid, they were just happy to do whatever I was doing,” McKenzie told ESPN. “I’m just so grateful for them and all the support they’ve shown me over the years.
“In a way, making this the World Cup team is kind of like repaying them and all the hard work and the hours Mum and Dad had to drive me around the countryside for various rugby tournaments, I’m so grateful for them. Everyone back home is so supportive and it’s pretty unbelievable. Just a little girl from Lightning Ridge now playing on the world stage.”