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From novice to leader: Michaela Leonard’s remarkable rise to Wallaroos captain

By Finn Morton
Michaela Leonard poses with team mates during an Australian Wallaroos captain's run at Sydney Grammar School on May 10, 2024 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

Captain Michaela Leonard will play Test number 25 on Saturday afternoon when Australia take on rivals New Zealand in a blockbuster Laurie O’Reilly Cup clash. It’s quite the achievement considering the skipper hadn’t even watched a single rugby union game before 2018.

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Leonard, 29, has been a mainstay of the Wallaroos for a number of seasons. Since making her debut in Aussie gold against Japan in Newcastle five years ago, the second-rower has gone to a World Cup, travelled the world and clearly developed into a leader.

Before playing the Black Ferns at Albany’s North Harbour Stadium, the Wallaroos looked to their captain at training on Friday during set-piece simulations and team huddles. Even as the rain poured down from the heavens, Leonard led the way.

Michaela Leonard Wallaroos Pacific Four Series
Finn Morton spoke with Australia captain Michaela Leonard on her unique rugby journey to 25 Tests. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins – World Rugby/World Rugby via Getty Images)

But, when you consider all of that, Michaela Leonard’s rugby journey isn’t just unique but “crazy” in the best ways as well. Before she was Wallaroo 168, let alone the captain of the national team, rugby union was a complete unknown to the woman from Canberra.

Growing up in the ACT, Leonard focused on swimming and basketball. The Australian even played representative ‘ball for the state before giving it up after having “probably burnt myself out a little bit.”

“I ended up just playing social Oztag and that sort of stuff back home, and then from there, they brought in the first year of rugby league with the Katrina Fanning Cup in 2017,” Leonard told RugbyPass at North Harbour Stadium on Friday.

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“I played one season of league before coming over to union and I think I played one year where I did league, AFL and union in the same year – it was probably 2018 – and then dropped the rest of them and just stuck with union.”

But before making the switch to the 15-player game as a sole focus, Leonard had to learn the sport from scratch. The Aussie had never watched a match before so she had absolutely “no idea what a ruck was” at her first training session.

Later on, Leonard went and watched a local club game with a friend and a similar problem presented itself. While the product of the Tuggeranong Viqueens had a bit of a background by that stage in sevens, 15s is a completely different ball game.

“It’s been pretty crazy to be fair. In 2018, before I’d played a game of rugby, I’d never actually watched a game of rugby union,” Leonard explained.

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“I went to watch a club rugby game with one of my friends before the 15s season started and I was like, ‘Why are they bringing it down from the lineout? What are you doing?’

“My friend was like, ‘They’re about to score, they’re gonna maul and they’re gonna score’ and I was like, ‘Okay, whatever that means.’

“Then, in 2019, called into the Aussie squad for the first time. Got to captain Oceania for Australia A at the end of that year.”

Less than two years after picking up rugby union, Leonard had developed her game to an incredible level. The second rower was thrust into the international arena in the first match of 2019’s four-Test series against Japan.

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The lock then toured the world after taking up professional opportunities with the Brumbies in Women’s Super Rugby, in New Zealand’s Super Rugby Aupiki with Matatu, and also stints in England with Exeter and with Montpellier in France.

But that’s only an insight into her vast experience in professional club rugby. Leonard was also the Western Force’s captain this year, adding another accolade to her incredible sporting CV.

As for the international level, Leonard is set to break more ground against the Black Ferns.

As a trailblazer for women’s rugby in the Land Down Under, the Wallaroos captain was all smiles ahead of her milestone 25th Test.

It’s safe to say it’s been quite the journey.

“It’s really pinch yourself stuff. It’s things you never expect to happen and things you could never dream to happen.

“But for me, it’s an absolute honour. It’s pretty special.

“A lot of things that I’ll probably remember for the rest of my life, I think for myself I’ve been really fortunate in my era of rugby to have played alongside and with some really incredible women, incredible leaders in their own right.

“Even looking at this squad, the leadership and the support we have in this group, it just makes it so much more enjoyable.

“Everything I’ve experienced up to date, it’s incredible to be a part of, it’s a massive honour and I think I’m just grateful for the opportunities I have had and the chances I’ve had to travel the world and met some pretty incredible women.”

This Trans-Tasman blockbuster at North Harbour Stadium will kick off at 12:05 pm AEST / 2:05 pm NZT. Fans can watch the Pacific Four Series clash live and free on RugbyPassTV if they sign up HERE.

The Women's Rugby World Cup 2025 is coming to England. Register now here to be the first to hear about tickets.

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