Standing in the tunnel at Suncorp stadium, tears began to trickle down Ivania Wong’s cheeks as she prepared to make her Wallaroos debut.
Ready to run out in the gold jersey, the hard work had paid off for Wong as she reached her goal of representing her adopted nation.
Moving to Brisbane from Rabaul, Papua New Guinea, at just eight years old, Wong, alongside her parents, older sister and three older brothers, began to settle into Australian life.
In a scary new place and learning English, a sports mad Wong took up every opportunity she could as she emerged from her shell and looked to find her place in a new country, eventually taking a shining to rugby by accident as much as anything else.
“I moved with my family for work and school. It took a while to get used to [living in Australia], English being a second language and everything, coming here it was getting used to everything,” Wong told ESPN. “It was just a bit new; it was scary when you’re that young as well, but exciting.
“At school I was kind of into every sport, so playing different sports from primary through to high school brought me out of my shell and just helped me make friends really. But I didn’t really know anything about 15s or sevens until a mate brought me down for a preseason trial at Sunnybank and ever since that day and getting a taste of it, I’ve just stuck around.”
Shy and softly spoken, Wong was quick to find her voice on the rugby pitch as she rose through the ranks first at Sunnybank, the Griffith University Sevens side in AON Uni 7s and then the inaugural Queensland Reds Super W squad in 2018, making her debut in the opening round.
Lighting up the Super W competition from the outset, Wong’s speed saw her dart through the defence and put on sizzling displays, but with her slight build she knew she’d have to work hard to overcome the bigger bodies in the 15s game.
“Just with my size and everything, I had to run at the big girls to know that if I can do it here, I can take on anyone,” she said. “So it was just trying to block out the fear and run at the big girls and get whacked around.
“It was definitely scary, but also something that I had to bring into my game to know that if I can do the contact, it’ll help more as a winger. I can’t be too scared just hanging out on the wing.”
Wong missed Wallaroos selection after her Super W debut, but she would eventually be named in the Players of National Interest squad in mid-2021 after impressive performances during the curtailed Super W competition in Coffs Harbour. It was another step in her journey to a Wallaroos debut, but with no Tests to be played that year the wait for a gold jersey continued.
Working hard in the offseason with her Sunnybank coaches, determined to crack into the Wallaroos side in one of their biggest year’s to date, Wong took her game to a whole new level in the 2022 Super W season, repeatedly slicing through opposition defences and scoring a hat trick in her side’s win over the Force. It was enough to finally see the star in the gold jersey she’d coveted for so many years as the extra work and support paid off.
“Just being in the Super W and playing for the Reds for so many years and not making it, it was pretty tough,” the winger told ESPN. “It was just going back making sure I put in the work and just went hard at training and whatever I was playing for.
“It took a lot of hard work and I think to finally receive the jersey and know that I was finally going to get to put on that jersey was pretty big and special because a lot of people helped me; from different coaches, my teammates and friends. It was pretty special.
“I’ve been at Sunnybank Rugby since I started playing 15s and I’ve been with [former Reds coach] Moana Virtue, who’s pretty tough and she helped me turn into the player I am today; then just playing sevens with her as well, being coached by her.
“Having Brando Va’aulu now, our current coach at Sunnybank, who has just been working with me on a lot of stuff and extras that he’s been helping me out with. There’s just a lot of coaches that have helped me along the way and that I’ve kind of taken little things from to help me become the player I am today.
“Hearing my name get called out and going out to grab the jersey, there were a lot of tears, I think all that hard work and everything that I’ve put in, it kind of just was a big moment. All the stuff we’ve been doing was to get a gold jersey, so to receive a jersey, it was pretty special and emotional.”
Overcoming the tears and emotion of singing the national anthem and seeing her family in the crowd at Suncorp Stadium earlier this year, the 25-year-old would go on to produce a starring performance against Fiji, her sideline dodging run in the opening minutes one of the many highlights of the match. She’d back it up twice more against Japan and New Zealand, before a knee injury would rule her out of the side’s following Test matches.
Healthy and fit again, Wong has been named to make her fourth start for the Wallaroos in one of their final preparations ahead of the World Cup, the first of two Tests against the Black Ferns for the O’Reilly Cup.
With plenty of competition for a position among the Wallaroos’ back three, Wong is making sure to focus only on what she can control as she eyes a World Cup berth.
“I’m pretty confident with myself, my biggest thing is just to worry about myself,” Wong told ESPN. “Obviously it’s going to be tough, but I think my main focus is just worrying about myself and playing my best footy. The competition is pretty strong, but that’s what you want because we’ve got to push each other, we want to put our best foot forward and compete and just prove whoever gets picked wants to win.
“The big goal is to get named in that World Cup squad. But the first step is just seeing how things go with selections and playing well, going hard with whatever game time I get, putting my best foot forward to see what happens with World Cup if I go or not.”