As the Buildcorp Super W powers ahead in its’ second year, producing an ever-increasing standard of Rugby, it’s catching the eyes of Rugby lovers the country over.
And in one, particularly cheeky, twist of fate down in Melbourne, a Super W player has also made quite the impression on Wallaby and Rebels flanker Richard Hardwick.
Mikaela Welti started every match for the Melbourne Rebels in last season’s Super W season, and as the season drew towards a close, she began dating Perth-raised Hardwick. They’re not the only couple in the competition – Brumbies playmaker Wharenui Hawera’s fiancee Ngawai Eyles also plays for the Brumbies Women, as she detailed in this interview with Canberra Times’ Eamonn Tiernan last month.
Hardwick has been helping out coaching the Melbourne Rebels Super W team since their formation last season, and an attraction and cheeky Instagram message kickstarted things for the duo.
“Whenever somebody asks how we met I make the joke that he was helping at training, but I didn’t take a second glance at him initially because he looked about eighteen years old,” Welti tells RUPA.
“Because I am a back and he was helping out with the forwards we didn’t really have much chat at training, but when the boys were about to go to South Africa, he sent me an Instagram message of him drinking coffee at the airport saying “unlucky” as I was at a gruelling beach training with the Super W team and then the rest is history!
“I worked out that he was actually a little bit older than me, even though he looks so young, and therefore it wouldn’t be weird if I checked him out! We kept our relationship mainly within ourselves, and we definitely wanted to see if we could put up with each other before we posted anything publicly. Our family and close friends knew, and then at the end of last year at (Western Force flanker) Chris Alcock’s wedding we posted publicly.”
“The thing about Hodgey is that he doesn’t really know what’s happening, he likes to try throw people under the bus, but his time is coming,” Hardwick laughs. “There’s a few girls that will be on his radar at the moment and one of these days him giving grief will bite him in the ass when it’s his turn to be on the receiving end.”
“I know a few girls that follow him!” Mikaela adds.
Tonight will see the Rebels play a double-header at AAMI Park, with Welti named to start at fullback against the Rugby WA women before Hardwick comes off the bench later against the Brumbies. Mikaela has had an immediate impact in Rugby, despite having not actually played it for that long.
“I grew up playing lots of different sports and I guess I ended up playing Rugby probably because my Dad didn’t get to have a son,” she tells RUPA. “Dad was born in England and was heavily involved in Rugby before he moved to Australia, and then he joined Box Hill Rugby Club and has been there ever since as a player first and then a Coach.
“Growing up, I played cricket for Victoria and also competed for Australia in the US at the Hip Hop Championships. I have also played AFL, which was my first contact sport through my high school years when there was no Rugby for girls of that age, and then in 2016 Dad said that Box Hill wanted to start up a women’s team again.
“He said that if I played, he’d coach. But I actually took off overseas with some friends to do some travel in that year, which he wasn’t too happy about, but he wanted to coach anyway and then when I came back in 2017, I got straight into it.
“Steve Tia, who is one of the volunteers at the Rebels and a good mate of my Dad’s, started giving me some specialist coaching and got me involved in Victorian Women’s training even before I had played my first game, and from there I progressed to Super W last year and again this time around.”
Hardwick enjoyed the opportunity to help coach the Super W team last year after moving from Perth following the axing of the Western Force and is enjoying getting involved in the Victorian Rugby community in general.
“Initially, the Super W team didn’t have a lot of involvement with the men’s team because it all got put together so quickly,” Hardwick explains. “I didn’t think that was right, seeing as they were sharing our name and part of our Club, so I helped out where I could with skills work and wanted to just show them that they weren’t alone on the journey.
“The Victorian Rugby community is really big and passionate which is awesome. Melbourne is such an AFL-dominated state, but to see how many supporters there are for Rugby and people who want to be involved at all levels, is brilliant. To have people who want to grow the sport is so important and it’s great to see.
“You can even see the growth in the one year I have been here, not just in the women’s game but also at the Club level. The professional pathway moving through will only help the Rugby quality get better and better in the coming years, hopefully as both Rebels sides become more competitive.
“I’m not sure whether I would ever like to coach at an elite level (when I finish playing), but I do like giving back to people who want to better themselves and sharing my Rugby knowledge. I love sharing the stories and little details that have helped me and if it does likewise for them, then that’s awesome.”
The sharing of knowledge is something that Mikaela is able to offer ‘Dicky’ as well, as she is an accredited practicing sports dietitian and qualified personal trainer; not that she forces any information on to him.
“I have always said that I am his girlfriend, not his dietitian, and they’ve got a great Dietitian working with them at the Rebels. He can do whatever he wants, if he wants help, I will give him advice but I’m not going to tell him what to do!” she says.
“That being said, Richard did tell his mum and dad that he actually eats vegetables now since we got together, and when we sat down for a big family meal with them in Perth everybody was pretty surprised that he was eating more than just potatoes, so I think I’ve had a bit of a good influence on him!”
Mikaela runs her own business, Welti Wellness, and while the flexibility means she is able to accommodate the training and travel requirements of Super W, it doesn’t make it easy for everything to fit in the schedule.
The Melbourne Rebels host a double-header of Buildcorp Super W and Super Rugby action at AAMI Park tonight, Friday March 8th; click here for details.
“I’ve previously worked with Eastern Rangers (TAC Cup AFL) and the Geelong VFL team, but running my own business now I am incorporating dietetics alongside personal training and health coaching. I do that up to seven days a week and not traditional working hours, and even though the flexibility has definitely helped, it also has it’s challenges.’
“A lot of the people I’m consulting with work traditional hours and want to see me outside of that, which has been challenging sometimes to fit in around training. We had a big team chat at the start of the year about how we need to change our mindset to make sure Super W isn’t seen as a sacrifice or forcing us to miss out on things; but rather we view it as an investment into our future playing careers, and once we changed that mindset, as a team, we definitely saw a shift in attitude.”
Hardwick made his Test debut against Fiji at AAMI Park in 2017, however a tough first year in Melbourne saw him drop out of the national squad. In a Rugby World Cup year, it would be easy to imagine that the Gold jersey would be his single-minded obsession, but that’s not the case.
“I had an injury-riddled season last year so my goal this year is just to play consistent footy and put back-to-back performances together,” he says. “I find that when I do that, I enjoy the game and play good Rugby, and if I do well enough then obviously the ultimate dream is to go to the Rugby World Cup but that’s a lot later in the season.
“Right now, I am completely focused on what I can do for the team in Melbourne to move forward and achieve success.
"We’ve done so much hard work and learning over pre-season and if we stick together and stay true to what we want to do we should have a good season. And then on the back of winning teams, that’s when players get selected for higher honours and that’s a bonus from there.”
With the Wallaroos also beginning to gain greater exposure and play more matches, there is a part of Welti that has designs on playing international Rugby, however more than anything it’s natural competitiveness and desire to improve which is driving that thought process.
“I think I’m always somebody who wants to improve on my abilities and whether that one day leads to being able to play at the next level or not, we will have to wait and see. I think when you get too far ahead of yourself thinking about what could be, it can sometimes hinder your performance, so at the moment I am just loving the game and trying to improve. I just want to be a better athlete and get those one-percenters done.
"Let’s just say that I’m letting Richard have the limelight for a little bit longer before I take over!”
This RUPA big Read was brought to you by theSCG Trust, RUPA’s official Stadium Partners. Find out what’s on at the Sydney Cricket Ground and buy your tickets for sporting events, including three NSW Waratahs 2019 Super Rugby matches,here.
Mikaela Welti image provided courtesy Stu Walmsley/Rugby AU.