Written by Stuart McLennan
When an Oxford University educated, Exeter Chiefs rugby union player, sports lawyer and content creator tells us her rugby league debut was the best day of her life, we sit up and listen.
The fact that Charlie Willett’s first game was an international match for Ireland against Italy in the northeastern Italian city of Udine may go some way to explaining her unbridled enthusiasm.
After Willett, who has Irish ancestry on her father’s side, completed what was initially described to her as a fitness test, and Ireland Head Coach John Whalley saw a video from an Exeter Chiefs match, the dream of wearing a green national jersey became reality.
“Genuinely I came off the field (in Udine) and just said you know, I think this is the best day of my life,” Willett revealed to Chasing Roos.
“I’ve had loads of games of union that I’ve loved but that was a career highlight definitely,” said Willet who played at prop forward for Ireland and describes herself as a contact athlete.”
“I was injured last year and fractured my back. As part of the recovery I had to put on some weight.
“It’s the first time in a long time that I've had a size advantage on a rugby field.
“I'm talking about seven or eight kilos and I'm still one of the smallest in the (rugby union) pack. So to then go into rugby league, obviously because you've got to be so fit everyone runs a little bit on the smaller side. It's pretty nice. I definitely felt those extra kilos being used.”
Willett, who scored Ireland’s only try in the second half of the match in the Emerald Isle’s 40-6 victory in June, credits a close supporter in helping get her name on the score sheet in her debut international match.
“My (Australian) partner has been absolutely exceptional in helping me transition over. He's obviously watched a lot more (rugby league) than I have and been following since he was a kid. I didn’t even watch rugby until I was 21. So it came pretty late for me.
“Something that we practiced was what are you going to do if you're near the tryline and you have taken the ball off nine (dummy half). It was making sure you catch the defence on the move and then you're changing your line as you catch the ball and making sure you score the try. I was like yeah, well that's exactly what I'm gonna do and to have it come off like that was that incredible.”
It was not just the game that saw Willett’s emotions running high. She reveals the pre-match ceremonies had her in tears before kick off.
“I was so emotional. They played ‘Ireland’s Call’. And for me, my nan on my dad's side is my strongest Irish family member. And I was just welling up like it just meant so much to me to be able to do that. She would have been so proud.
“So to do that, and then to be able come off and FaceTime my dad at the end of the game. He was unable to fly out but to see how proud he was to see me in that shirt. I wasn't expecting to be like that emotionally.”
Willett says a key part of Ireland’s success was the positive culture amongst the players.
“It's really good vibes. I was just really impressed at how well the girls came together. I think one of the benefits of now being a full time athlete is I had the time and the resources to go to both the camp in England and the camp in Ireland. I think I was the only one of the girls that was able to do that. So I felt quite lucky going into that environment.
“Everyone got stuck in and got on and it was just really good vibes, one of the best kind of atmospheres within a team I've been part of, so that was really cool.”
On holiday in Queensland with her partner when we spoke, Willett is hopeful of fulfilling an ambition to crack a spot in the NRLW, fuelled by her rugby league debut. After preliminary conversations with club officials, she is upbeat about returning to Australia as a player in 2023.
“Since I got involved with the Ireland set up I thought if I am going to do it (play rugby league) I should do it in the best league in the world.
“I thought let's not get ahead of ourselves. Let's play a league game first. You might not like it. As soon as I came off the field, I was like this is 100% what I want to do. So now I'm trying to try to make that happen. If there's any coaches out there who fancy a second row or prop, give me a shout.”
Ireland will line up against Wales in their final group European B North game in October this year.