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'Our season is only eight weeks long in Australia. I've come to play some good consistent footie.'

By Lucy Lomax
Arabella McKenzie of Australia celebrates the win during the Pool A Rugby World Cup 2021 match between Australia and Wales at Northland Events Centre on October 22, 2022, in Whangarei, New Zealand. (Photo by Hannah Peters - World Rugby/World Rugby via Getty Images)

For many supporters, they may have heard Arabella McKenzie’s name for the first time during the Rugby World Cup last year. She debuted for her country back in 2019 but it’s fair to say she exploded onto our screens in the opening weekend of the World Cup in October as the Wallaroos went 17-0 up against the Black Ferns after 28 mins.


The puppet master at fly-half, McKenzie led the Australian attack from kick-off and the New Zealand players and Eden Park crowd barely knew what hit them.

Fast forward to the end of the tournament and McKenzie was boarding a plane from Sydney to London Heathrow after penning a deal for Harlequins Women.

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The move came about after she messaged the club on Instagram after being in conversations with another Premier 15s outfit. But the Harlequins style of play and history persuaded her to head to southwest London.

The transition from green and gold to the famous quarters has seen the 23-year-old continue to blossom at 10 and 12, making numerous breaks to open up defences as well as scoring a sensational try in her first match at The Stoop against Saracens last December.

“In Australia you play fast, attacking rugby whereas here you tend to look for territory and then go into set piece,” said the utility back. “Harlequins’ style has the element of unstructured rugby which I really love and was a drawing point when I was looking at teams to potentially be a part of. The Quins way and throwing the ball round sold me but they still have that structure and set piece.

“Moving over in November with Kaity (Leany) was really fun and now Chance (Emily Chancellor) is here too our little Wallaroos/Waratahs trio is complete.”


Until this season it had been rare so to see southern hemisphere players come across to play in the English club league, despite numerous Americans and Canadians. The number of Australians this season has increased to five, and McKenzie explains why it was the right decision for her.

“The Premier 15s is the best league in the world in my opinion, Harlequins have such a rich history and their own winning ways, similar to the Waratahs over in Sydney but I just wanted to play some good consistent footie.

“Our season is only eight weeks long in Australia and here we have already played eight rounds and still have nine or ten to go and then finals, so this will be really beneficial for me, plus I’ve always wanted to live overseas at some point.

“When the Six Nations break is on, I think I’ll do a bit of travel. I’ve never had a year off or a gap year so come summertime I’ll probably stay over here and do a bit of travel with friends who are coming over.”


Still a young player but with a mature head on her shoulders, McKenzie admits she sees the value in travelling aboard and pushing herself out of her comfort zone as demonstrated by her move to England and when she crossed the Tasman Sea to play in New Zealand’s inaugural Super Rugby Aupiki competition at the beginning of last year, representing the South Island’s team Matatu.

“Joining Super Rugby Aupiki was a really cool experience. I hadn’t been out of Australia before for that long, and it was a bit of a personal struggle moving to a new country and having to quarantine. It was only for two months but looking back it taught me a lot about myself and how I handle situations as a person and an athlete, and I also made friends for life.”

These friends and teammates for life refer to a few names people may be familiar with since the conclusion of the World Cup, including world champions Kendra Cocksedge, the Bremner sisters and Renée Holmes.

The Wallaroos only went as far as the quarter-finals in the competition where they lost to eventual runners-up the Red Roses. However, McKenzie is optimistic about the experience and where Australia 15s rugby is heading in the future.

“The England girls were all saying that they thought we were going to beat New Zealand in that first game and we showed glimpses of what our potential is. It’s frustrating how we only played in patches against Scotland and Wales in the group stages. We showed what we can do but it’s just hard when you’re not full time.

“Playing northern hemisphere countries for the first time was an experience in itself, they’re so strong and physical and their set piece side of things was dominant. The line speed against Scotland, Wales, England and New Zealand was next level, they’re amazing athletes and that showed in the pressure from their defence.

“For us, our set piece isn’t our biggest strength at the moment but when we get that firing I think we’ll be up there and a more rounded team. Our potential is limitless.”

With the majority of teams at the World Cup on professional contracts of some sort, McKenzie acknowledges that outside pressure and players speaking out can only add to the argument for contracts in the national set up.

“Rugby Australia have their own plans for where they see for the Wallaroos in the future and I’m sure the appointment of Eddie Jones will only bring more exposure back to rugby union and reopen that conversation about being contracted.”

McKenzie knows full well the experience of working full-time and having to fit rugby and gym around that, however, for the time being at least she is living out the dream with Quins as a full-time athlete.

“Back in Australia I was working in disability from 9-5, which meant having to rock up to training in the afternoon, so to now not have that pressure and stress to earn money is really cool. It’s great to just focus on rugby.

“Working in the disability sector is not easy but it’s also very rewarding. The Wallaroo girls, we’re battlers, we would do 12-hour days and for very little money, but when you are together you have this special bond and it makes you want to play for each other more but hopefully one day it doesn’t have to be that way.

“One of my biggest inspirations is Emily ‘Horse’ Robinson, she’s my best friend back home and that was her second World Cup just gone. She works so hard and fought her way back into the squad having been in and out since 2017. She’s a real positive influence for me, kept my head on my shoulders and got me through the experience of my first World Cup.”

As well as the uptake, attendances and standard of the recent World Cup, another positive to take off the back of 2022 is the number of international matches in the women’s game being higher than ever before, with more than 100 Tests played.

“Last year was a massive calendar for us, we played 11 games and spent a lot of time together. I debuted in 2019 and we had four Test matches that year and I played all four and then Covid happened so we didn’t play again for two years. Our first game back in May 2022 against Fiji was so special and one of the best feelings I’ve ever had. It felt like I was debuting all over again!”

With the new global WXV tournament beginning later this year and the return of the Pacific Four Series, you feel it won’t be long before we see this emerging star back on the world stage. For now, it’s all about climbing the table in the Premier 15s where Harlequins currently sit third.

“Beating Saracens at home was my first game at The Stoop and it was a really good performance. It was crazy there was a whole crowd just to watch the women’s game, it wasn’t a double header with the men’s, it was stand alone. I was looking around after the game and couldn’t believe they were there to just watch us play.”

It’s encouraging to see opportunities being given to world-class players to travel abroad, play professionally and perform in front of big crowds, it’s nothing less than these talented women deserve, with McKenzie a prime example.

The Premier 15s continues to live up to its reputation as a hot bed and nurturing ground for English and international talent which the global game and league benefitting.

Although the structure and standard of the domestic game in other countries needs to be addressed for nations to compete with England, for the time being I’m enjoying seeing the intercontinental mix of McKenzie, Lori Cramer, Paige Farries, Kate Zackary and others sparkling on my screen each weekend.


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