‘I didn’t know I could play rugby’, How an email set Em Chancellor on a path to the World Cup

Average desk worker by day, semi-professional athlete by night. It’s what Wallaroos flanker Em Chancellor dubs her so-called “double life”, as she follows her dream to represent Australia at her first ever Rugby World Cup in New Zealand.

Working at Sydney University as a Club Development Manager during the week, Chancellor regularly rushes from her desk job to her training sessions with the Waratahs and Wallaroos while also finding time to add in extras to continue to build her technique. It’s tiring and tough, but the backrower says it’s a life she loves living.

“I see it as double life. I get up, I go to work, I sit at a desk and I do a job that I’m paid for and then in the afternoon I get to go out and train hard and be a rugby player,” Chancellor told ESPN. “That’s the gritty, dirty stuff that no one really wants to talk about in terms of the training, and then suddenly you play on the weekend and it’s almost a performance and then on Monday I go back to work again.

“I love that it’s a double life. I always equate myself to being like a ’91 World Cup Wallaby who had the double life as well.

“I love the fact that I get to use my brain. I studied, I’ve done the hard work to get a degree and be able to be capable of being an employee in a normal workplace, and then I get to also be physical and play something that I really love and express myself on a rugby field and sort of not be identified by one part of my life, I get to use both and be proud of both elements of my double life.”

Like many Australian footballers, Chancellor was a late-in-life rugby player, watching from the sidelines at a young age, never believing she could play the game or represent her country. But 10 years after picking up a rugby ball, the flanker heads to New Zealand as part of an Australian side looking to upset some of the more fancied teams.

A long-time Waratahs fan alongside her father, Chancellor spent her younger years watching NSW and the Wallabies while she quickly rose through the netball and swimming ranks, never knowing she was missing out on playing the game she loves. That was until a “Pathway to Gold” email from Sydney University arrived in her inbox and changed her life forever.

“It’s the story of the past and hopefully it’s not the story of the future in terms of rugby,” Chancellor said. “It [rugby] it just wasn’t an option for me. When I was growing up, I didn’t know that girls could play, and I didn’t feel like I was missing out on anything.

“I loved watching rugby and I played netball and I was a swimmer, I did my sports that I thought were for me really well, and then when I got to uni they sent an email around saying ‘come try rugby, a pathway to gold at Rio Olympics’.

“I was literally at a netball game with a friend and thought it would be kind of cool to learn to tackle, so we turned up to this pathway to gold session, no mouth guard, no idea what I was doing and I just wanted to I know that I can do it.

“I started it, loved it and dropped my netball scholarship pretty quickly in the next year because I just knew that rugby was a game that I was meant to be playing. I just didn’t know that it was a game I could play before that.”

While Chancellor says she wasn’t quite a duck to water when it came to taking on rugby, the 31-year-old quickly made strides, representing Australia at the World University Games in 7s, before she made her Wallaroos debut in 2018 and capped off the season receiving the Wallaroo of the Year award.

A tireless worker, the backrower has repeatedly taken strides to improve her game, most recently adding an impressive on-ball presence at the breakdown to her arsenal that will see her depart for New Zealand as one of Australia’s best players and perhaps one of the World’s best flankers.

“Beginning of the year I had a conversation with the coaches and asked what’s the area that you think I need the most work in and they said jackal,” Chancellor told ESPN. “It wasn’t an element of the game that I was producing any good results and I sort of said, if you don’t think I’m good at jackalling I’m gonna make that the thing that I’m good at.

“I went away in the eight weeks that we had off before the O’Reilly series [against New Zealand] and I had two-to-three sessions a week focused purely on getting shape over the ball and it paid off. I’m sure I’ll be targeted in the next couple of games because of it, they’ll probably run at me more than run next to me.

“It’s a simple skill, it’s like if you’re told to scrummage and you’re not doing something right and it’s such a simple thing to fix. It’s just a core skill for a backrower and if I was told I’m not good at it, I don’t like being told I’m not good at something, so I thought I’d work to improve it, and it’s paid off.”

Chancellor will travel alongside several formidable backrowers in the Wallaroos squad in one of the most competitive positions in the group. Joined by current captain Shannon Parry, former captain Grace Hamilton and two young guns Piper Duck and Grace Kemp, the flanker says she’ll take every opportunity she can get to get on the field to wear the gold jersey.

“I get to train in my state with Grace Hamilton and Piper Duck and compete with those two every day and then you come into camp and you compete with Shannon Parry, a two time Olympian and the captain of the team, and then you’ve got Grace Kemp, who is just an up-and-coming superstar.

“I love the competition because competition for position makes you better every day, and it makes you make sure that you’re doing the best that you can do to be on the field.

“I want to be on the field. I want to be playing seven, but I will take any position that I can be given. If I’m on the bench, so be it, because that means that the coaches think that’s the best thing for the team. I love that we have good competition in that backrow position, I’m doing everything that I can to stay on the field, so if that’s six at the moment, great, I’ll fit into the game plan. But I think the competition is the only way us as a nation is going to keep getting better.”

Following a huge season with the Waratahs, which saw her awarded Forward of the Year — a player-voted award — Chancellor has continued to take her game to a new level and is determined to make a mark on the Wallaroos World Cup campaign for her teammates.

“For me, every time I step out on the field, it’s just to give the best performance that I can for my team. I think that the thing that means the most to me is that my teammates see me as someone that is working hard for them, to know that your teammates value what I’m putting into the field and the effort that I’m putting in, that’s really special.

“So of course, you take that and roll with it, but it doesn’t mean anything when you step onto the field each time, you’ve still got to prove yourself in each game you play, so you can’t really rest on the coattails of performances in the past. It’s each game you’ve got to step up and play.”

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