When young rugby player Ati woke up on a Saturday morning in Melbourne late last year, she had no idea what was about to unfold.
An avid supporter of Melbourne Rebels Women, Ati had reason to be excited as she had been invited to watch her idols train in person. However, unbeknown to the 11-year-old, a surprise lay in store.
With her own training session at Racing Rugby Club of Melbourne out of the way, Ati and her family headed to Endeavour Hills to watch the Rebels being put through their paces by coach Alana Thomas.
But, as the session got underway, Thomas called the players into a huddle and revealed that pre-season preparation was not the only reason everyone was gathered there.
The Rugby World Cup 2021 Coaching Intern brought Ati forward and told her that she had been selected to become a Youth Unstoppable. She then handed her a Rebels jersey and whistle and invited the youngster to assist her during training.
“I was speechless,” Ati told World Rugby.
“She (Thomas) was talking about how the girls are mentors to us and then she was like, ‘But we have a special guest’.
“Then she said my name and told me how I was being rewarded.”
Ati admits that she “nearly fainted” when those words came out of Thomas’ mouth, and it began to dawn on her what they meant.
Not least because in her temporary role as Rebels assistant coach she would get to share a pitch with her favourite player, Melanie Kawa.
“Mel is really an awesome player,” Ati said.
“She’s just so positive and really strong, and she always congratulates the girls.”
The Rebels play an important role in Ati’s life. As Thomas noted the squad are inspirational to young female players like her and enjoy a close relationship with the local community.
In turn, Ati has helped to drive the popularity of both the team and women’s rugby more generally through the #RebelLikeHer social media pages and her own #LittleRebels campaigns.
Those campaigns, through which she has helped to run out the kicking tee during Victorian Women’s Premier matches, have helped her feel part of the team and given her “so much courage”.
It is little surprise that one of her three ambitions – alongside playing senior women’s rugby and representing Australia at Rugby World Cup – is donning the Rebels jersey in Super W.
“I would love to play for Alana one day,” Ati said.
“Because I look up to all the Rebels right now, knowing that one day I might play for them would be just so fantastic.”
It seems that respect goes both ways. In August 2020, when her local community was living under a lockdown due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Ati began filming training videos to help her peers stay engaged with rugby.
Erin Hatton, who works for Oceania Rugby, spotted the YouTube videos and nominated Ati to become a Youth Unstoppable.
Thomas, who played at Rugby World Cup 2006 and will be part of the Wallaroos coaching team at RWC 2021 in New Zealand, has been impressed with the work being done by Ati and others to grow the women’s game.
“The thing I’m excited about is this next generation,” she said. “These young Unstoppables that we’re seeing now, in the next two World Cup cycles those girls are going to be playing in the World Cup and that’s what’s really exciting for me.
“Seeing young girls like Ati and the group of Unstoppables coming through is an inspiration because it shows what they’re doing is creating the future for those young girls.”
“There’s a spot for anyone”
It was perhaps to be expected that Ati would find a home in rugby, given both her parents, Emma and James, play and are active in the local community.
Ati admits that she cannot remember the exact moment she first picked up an oval ball so ubiquitous has the game been in her upbringing.
Her first birthday party was held at The Sevens Stadium in Dubai, and both her older sister, Cerys, and younger brother, Ethan also play the game.
Like her dad, who is a prop, and sister, who lines up in the second-row, Ati has excelled as a forward. Hooker is her position and she enjoys the responsibility that comes with playing one of the most all-action roles on a team.
Playing at the head of the scrum, Ati says, is “awesome”. “You have so much trust in your players and there's so much contact.
“Everything kind of comes down to you as a hooker because you've got to get the ball out.
“So, there's pressure on me but all the boys are really kind and if I don't get it out and the other team gets it, then they're like, 'Alright, try again'.”
Ati is currently the only girl on her U12 team, something she admits was “a bit tricky” to begin with. But her team-mates treat her as an equal, which has given her the confidence to dream big.
If she is to achieve her goals and represent both the Rebels and Wallaroos in years to come, then the youngster knows exactly what she needs to do.
“Keep on playing, keep on practising and keep on trying my hardest,” Ati said.
You can be sure she will be keep doing all three, and more, given the positive impact the game has had on her both on and off the pitch.
Asked how rugby made her feel ‘unstoppable’ Ati replied: “If you're down and one day you go to rugby training and everyone's all happy, it just makes you feel good about yourself.”
That is a message she hopes to spread to more young women and girls in Australia in showing that rugby is a game that welcomes everyone.
“It doesn't matter what you look like, what size you are, how you play, there's a spot for anyone on a rugby team,” Ati said.
“It doesn’t really matter about winning, rugby’s just such a fun sport to play.”
Rugby has been a part of Ati’s life for so long that she cannot remember the exact moment she first picked up an oval ball.
Given mum and dad, Emma and James, both play and are involved with the game at a state level in Victoria, Australia, that should come as little surprise.
Before she was old enough to take to the field herself, Ati watched the enjoyment older sister Cerys derived from rugby and in turn, younger brother Ethan has followed his siblings and parents onto the pitch.
Ati is currently the only girl on the Racing Rugby Club of Melbourne’s U12 team, something that has given her the confidence to aim high in the future.
Her goals include playing for a women’s team by the time she is 16, playing in the Super W – preferably for her beloved Melbourne Rebels – and representing Australia at Rugby World Cup.
Achieving those aims will take dedication and perseverance, something she displayed during the COVID-19 pandemic when she recorded a pair of training videos to help players in her local community remain connected with the game they love.
If her exploits on YouTube suggest a future in coaching lies ahead, Ati got to live out those dreams when she assisted Melbourne Rebels Women coach Alana Thomas on the day that she discovered she would become a Youth Unstoppable.
Thomas had revealed to Ati that she would be part of the campaign and the Victorian was then given the opportunity to take part in a training session with her heroes – including favourite player, Melanie Kawa – as an assistant coach.