Growing up in rural Queensland, opportunities to do anything outside of the family cattle ranch let alone play rugby were few and far between for Chloe Butler.
Even trips to school involved a four-hour trip, otherwise, it was a case of remote learning via a walkie-talkie.
“There were few and far rugby fields where I grew up, or green grass to be honest. Living on the land you are a long way from that kind of opportunity,” she admitted.
But a move to the city of Cairns opened up a new world for Butler, who like a lot of Australian girls, came to rugby late after trying her hand in other sports such as gymnastics, track and field and even American Football while spending some time in the States.
On returning to Australia from Los Angeles, the Parramatta Two Blues gave her a first insight into the rugby family and a route into the Australian national team.
The loose forward made her test debut as a 27-year-old and went on to feature in two Rugby World Cups in 2014 and 2017, as well as playing overseas for Richmond and Harlequins.
But it was the sense of belonging that came with rugby that gave Butler the most satisfaction from her storied playing career. And now, in her role as Central Queensland’s regional rugby manager of girls and women’s rugby, she wants as many women as possible to experience the joy that the sport can bring.
“I want to make a positive impact on the lives of young girls and help them to use rugby as a vehicle to become resilient and happy people,” she said.
In 2020, her first year in the position, Butler co-founded a new regional girls’ competition for U14s, U16s and U18s, spread over seven rounds and running until October. Upwards of 150 girls are involved from all corners of the region, with matches largely played in the coastal town of Mackay where Butler resides.
“The first thing I noticed was there was no local comp so how do you even get good if you can’t play all the time,” she pointed out.
“It helps bridge the gap when you stop playing with the boys at 12 and then you don’t play again until you’re a senior. I just want them to get as much from the rugby community as they can and ultimately give them everything that it has given me – the camaraderie and the family – it is such a worldly sport.
“Emerald, which is about five hours west of here, is a massive mining town, and there are just so many girls with not much to do and there are upwards of 50 girls at training: they want to be involved and engaged and be part of something.
“I am kind of living through them in a way, being a real country girl, I am creating playing opportunities for those girls that are probably a similar prototype to what I was many moons ago.”
When asked about her career highlights, she said: “Going to play in Europe and play in two Rugby World Cups, and all of that, is so, so good. But you can’t look past the camaraderie and the sisterhood you make in all those journeys.
“Long after you’ve finished playing you can always shoot people a message, or you can visit them in their home country and it’s like no time has gone, that is definitely the best part of rugby, those lifelong friendships that you make.”
Butler, who recently became a mother to eight-week-old baby boy Kai, was 32 when she retired from playing. But her joy of coaching and giving back has helped her overcome any lingering sense that shoulder surgery, COVID-19 and her current job put a stop to that too early.
“Having spent so long as an athlete, that burning desire, that spark, is always there,” she admitted.
“But I am 34, I’ve been to a couple of World Cups and been around the block and there are only so many pre-seasons you can persuade yourself to go through.
“I really love coaching. Giving people hope is very rewarding. When you make someone believe in themselves and give them skill and resilience is so rewarding. You feel like you have contributed to someone’s life and they are going to be better off for it.
“I realised I can’t coach if I am playing. Like any athlete, you have to sacrifice a lot to do it well and I knew I couldn’t do both.”
Sharing the load
Raising young Kai has given Butler a chance to step back – at least until her maternity leave ends in August – and realise that the future of women’s rugby in Queensland should not start and end with her.
“It’s great to be a key stakeholder in the growth of the game for girls and women. When you have walked the path, you know what’s needed and you ask the questions. When you don’t have a female on the boards of these organisations it is not that they don’t care, it is just a case of out of sight out of mind.
“But one thing I want to leave in the region is sustainability. When you go somewhere and you want to help, you do everything, but now I’ve had this maternity leave, I’ve kind of stepped back and thought, ‘gosh Chloe, don’t do everything otherwise if you go everything stops’.
“So I have been trying to give as much input as I can to the other coaches and make them feel engaged in the journey.”