Heleina Young, the track sprinter turned try express in Super W

Heleina Young

The flying feet of the Queensland Reds’ instant star Heleina Young had lived a lifetime in rugby but never a proper game of 15-a-side until 12 months ago.

The astonishing rise of the former track sprinter from Suva reaches a fairytale moment on Saturday in the Super W final in Townsville.

Lining up against the Fijiana Drua, with friends on board, means there won’t be a hostile twitch to her thinking for this peak clash in women’s rugby.

“I know how they’ll play, that Fijian-style, off-load game. I know some of the girls. I’ll always see them as my sisters as are the Reds,” Young, 22, said with a smile.

Young’s arrival all happened in a blur last Sunday when she scorched by four defenders in a silky, swerving 50m run to the tryline to turn the semi-final.

Take a look at the footage. You had to quickly take stock. Heleina who from where? Was that really as super-slick and fast as it looked?

Give me a replay. She did. Less than three minutes later, the Fijian-born flash was scooting over on her wing for a second try at Sydney’s Concord Oval.

When the resilient Reds had finally fought their way to a 23-20 decision over the ACT Brumbies in an excellent contest, the chatter didn’t stop about the hottest new face on the Super W scene.

Incredibly, Young hadn’t even played a 15-a-side game until debuting for GPS on April 23 last season after arriving from Suva. Racking up 26 tries in 13 games quickly had eyes popping. 

All her childhood dreams had been on the track where she competed against Australia’s 2020 Tokyo Olympian Riley Day at the 2017 Youth Commonwealth Games in the Bahamas.

She ran her personal best of 11.82 sec for the 100m for a silver medal at the 2019 Pacific Games in Samoa where gold in the 4 x 100m sprint relay was a high.

“I started running when I was seven but, when you grow up in Fiji, rugby is like a lifestyle,” she explained.

“You do your thing during the day time and then in the afternoon you all meet in the same place.

“Whether we have a ball or we don’t, someone can always flatten up a plastic bottle, use a shoe or tie a T-shirt with a knot to play touch rugby every afternoon.”

Young is grateful she had supportive male players around her who encouraged, rather than sidelined, her.

“They weren’t little boys, they were big boys. They were very inclusive and never said ‘You’re a girl, you’ll get hurt’ or ‘you’re too small, go stand on the side’,” she recalled.

“Getting the confidence to run around them was really because they let me do it. It still gave me the feeling I can do it when I arrived at GPS.”

Having a sprinter’s genes is no guarantee of rugby success although 1961 Wallaby Michael Cleary won a bronze medal in the 100 yards at the British Empire and Commonwealth Games in Perth the following year.

Queenslander Ken Donald was another with track pedigree who played for the Wallabies while 1956 Melbourne Olympics 100m finalist Hec Hogan played club rugby in Brisbane for Brothers.

“Absolutely, every session I’m learning. There is so much to take in,” Young said.

“There are a whole lot of skills and game reads. It’s not just about running with the ball.

“My teammates have been very patient with me and properly explain things.”

Becoming a cog in a team has been one the biggest changes for her.

“You are on your own in track. One of the biggest differences in the transition to rugby is working as a team and learning to communicate because I do suffer a little from social anxiety,” she said.

“The Reds girls don’t force me to talk. They just make a joke to loosen me up.”

Young made a joke of her own. She has no plans to be caught by the Fijiana defenders on Saturday. “I wouldn’t want to be caught in any of their big tackles so I’ll have to run quicker,” she said.