WOMEN'S RUGBY LEAGUE

From Ball Girl To The Big Stage

Former back-rower Craig Fitzgibbon's Kangaroos shorts from the 2008 World Cup still hold pride of place in Jillaroos utility Maddie Studdon's home.

Studdon was 13 when she was offered the chance to be a ball girl during the Kangaroos' World Cup campaign, including a trip to Brisbane's Suncorp Stadium for the final.

Kangaroos pair Billy Slater and Cameron Smith are the only two current players remaining from the side that suffered a 34-20 loss to a Wayne Bennett-influenced Kiwis outfit in the final.

Studdon handed the kicking tee to a 24-year-old Test rookie by the name of Johnathan Thurston during that tournament. 

On Saturday afternoon she will take on the New Zealand Kiwi Ferns at the same ground. All eyes will be on her and her Jillaroos teammates as they look to defend their World Cup crown.

"I started at South Sydney when my dad was coach of their SG Ball side. I got asked to ball girl on that occasion and was fortunate to get the opportunity to progress," Studdon told NRL.com.

"It was a lot of fun, I remember on the sideline throwing the ball up and watching the game that I love in front of a big crowd. I was pretty young, but it's something I've never forgotten."

Studdon uses her experiences growing up around rugby league to spur on younger females and give back to the game.

The 23-year-old donates anything she can to junior rugby league clubs and looks to emulate the same traits as Thurston with ball kids on the paddock.

"Now to be here and having them run out to us, it's surreal because that's what I did," Studdon said.

"Our little ball girl plays for the Sharks and I always have a chat out there with her. During one of the tries that went up to the video referee I asked her what she thought and if she's playing footy again next year.

"She said 'yep'. Little things like that, it's great to hear.

"And who knows, I might play with her in 10 years when she's older. That's what it's all about. I like to involve everyone in our game whether that's on the field or in the stands.

"Just giving it back to fans or officials, our trainers. They're all a part of our community and this journey we're on."

Jillaroos coach Brad Donald overlooked the Cronulla Sharks representative for a starting spot in Australia's 16-4 win over New Zealand in May with injured pivot Simone Smith and Zahara Temara preferred, but Studdon responded with a strong game off the bench to earn a World Cup spot.  

The incumbent NSW halfback admitted she was under constant pressure for a spot in the Jillaroos line-up and has been forced to settle on a bench position throughout the tournament with Caitlin Moran and Ali Brigginshaw firing in the halves.

Studdon and Moran were the NSW halves pairing, but Brigginshaw has not missed a game throughout the tournament and was short-listed for the player of the tournament award.

"There has been pressure for a while, but it's healthy competition," Studdon said.

"Caitlin and I are best mates so it can get hard, but that's what the coach wants. We have a completely different game, she's a ball-runner and takes on the line a lot.

"I'm probably a bit smarter with my kicking game where as she's a bit more laidback and instinctive which works too.

"It would be hard for the coaching staff and I understand that. We've got a very talented squad of 24."

This article first appeared on NRL.com