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Zainab Alema: If you’re black, Muslim and a woman you can still play rugby

In the not too distant future, Zainab Alema hopes to be sitting on the sofa, cup of Earl Grey in hand cheering on a Muslim Woman playing for England.

If it happens expect tears, lots of them, because this woman known to her team-mates as ‘Bulldozer’ has spent her playing days smashing plenty of physical, emotional and cultural obstacles to get her there.

Growing up, Zainab never thought about playing rugby, she didn’t even know women could. But from the moment she first got “stuck in” during a PE lesson at 17, she relished every second of “feeling free and just running”. The game became intertwined in her life “like an old friend”. But like old friends, there were times she’d question the relationship feeling sometimes like an outsider, someone who didn’t belong.

From the moment she was born prematurely at only 26 weeks, she was a fighter and says she had an innate drive, “if I want to do something I try my hardest to get it done”. She liked sport at school but until that PE class, she never loved any sport. That same PE teacher who encouraged her to give it a go got her into a training session at Ealing Trailfinders, but even then Zainab’s rugby journey almost didn’t get started.

https://www.instagram.com/p/CC51yN9A7Cu/

This time last year I made my transition to @barnesrfcwomen . What a year it has been! I joined when I was 3 months pregnant , trained pre-season until I was 5 months then had to stop because I was becoming a liability ๐Ÿ‘€๐Ÿคฃ๐Ÿคฐ๐Ÿพ Watching on the sidelines with my ever growing bump , there was nothing more I wanted than to be out there with my new teammates. I'm so Happy I chose this club as I've never felt so free yet connected to such an amazing group of women. Ready to smash it up in the upcoming season!! Can not wait!๐Ÿ’ฅ๐Ÿ’ช๐Ÿพ๐Ÿ’š๐Ÿ’› Bulldozer Love

A post shared by Zainab Alema ๐Ÿ‡ฌ๐Ÿ‡ญ๐Ÿ‡ฌ๐Ÿ‡ง (@zeealema) on

“I was so excited to go to my first session and I got lost and the coach came to find me and by then the session was over. I was so mortified. I have lived in London all my life but I got totally lost.”

Accessibility, is she believes, one of the hurdles she had to overcome. “Often clubs are in secluded areas where you have to walk so far along the road before you actually get to the club. For me when I started at 17, I was going by myself by public transport. It was tough especially in winter, down dark streets. My team-mates had their parents dropping them off in cars but I had such a passion for the game I just carried on.”

By far the biggest obstacle for Zainab has been her culture. She says she often gets stared at and commented on when she is in the park kitted up, complete with her hijab and rugby ball in her hand. Her dad couldn’t understand why an African Muslim woman would want to play rugby, “a male, elitist sport”. There are stereotypes she says of Muslim households, “women are supposed to be at home cooking, cleaning and having kids. That’s what we do to some extent but we can do so much more. I am determined to smash those stereotypes”.

It’s not been straightforward. While studying to be a neonatal nurse at university, she joined the rugby team but sometimes struggled to fit in, not just because of the way she looked.

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I love this one – @rugby_marrakech ๐Ÿ’•๐Ÿ‰ #beautiful #passion #rugby #team #teamwork #womensupportingwomen #womenempowerment #womensrugby

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“I felt a bit out of place because a lot of the time socialising was so alcohol-based. Not that the team would do it on purpose. We would have a pint for the Woman of the Match and I would win it quite a lot, and then have to nominate someone to have it, and it was so uncomfortable I wanted the ground to swallow me up. It may seem like something little to someone else, but it was those little experiences that were so difficult for me.

“I was the only black person on my team wearing a hijab and leggings under my shorts. I look different and all of that stuff played on my mind. I would end up just playing and then go, and when I look back it makes me feel a bit sad. I didn’t get that time to connect with my team off the pitch just because of that awkwardness.

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Soon…๐Ÿคž๐Ÿพ๐Ÿ’š๐Ÿ’›๐Ÿ‰ @barnesrfcwomen

A post shared by Zainab Alema ๐Ÿ‡ฌ๐Ÿ‡ญ๐Ÿ‡ฌ๐Ÿ‡ง (@zeealema) on

“People say, you could just sit down and have a coke, which I do now, but I think in uni it is a bit different, I guess you go to the bar a lot more too.”

When she left university and began nursing she found something was missing in her life. She needed a way to release the stress so she began looking for a new rugby club.

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Launch of the project in Ghana 20196๐Ÿ‰

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“What I did was have a little nosy at them on social media. What’s the vibe of the club? Is there a black person? Is there an Asian person? Is there someone that I can relate to?”

She settled on Millwall and earnt herself her ‘bulldozer’ nickname. Her job as No 8 was to pick the ball up at the back of the scrum and smash straight into the opposition fly-half.

“The name is sort of a metaphor for what I’m doing and who I am. It smashes and demolishes things, it’s like what I am doing with stereotypes. I kind of like it and it has stuck.”

Zainab currently plays at Barnes Rugby Club, “they’re amazing and it’s weird even though Barnes is a very middle-class area and there are barely any black people at the club, I feel so at home. I guess because I’m an adult I know how to take control of my emotions and I can say no if I don’t want to be in an environment. We had another black woman join us recently because of me and that’s brilliant.”

Given that, perhaps things are beginning to change – “there is a slow progression,” she says. Her hero was World Cup winner Maggie Alphonsi and now she loves watching England’s Shaunagh Brown.

“There is more visibility and I like to be active on my social media, because I want people to know that yes if you’re black and a woman you can play rugby. I know how difficult it is so I want to be open with my journey so that other people like me coming through, or thinking maybe I want to try rugby, can look at me and say you know what I can do it.”

Zainab runs “Studs in the Mud ” where she uses rugby to try and change people’s lives for the better, shipping out kit around the world to give people, particularly women and children, the chance to play. She also has a project which aims to encourage more Muslim women to give rugby a go.

https://www.instagram.com/p/B23QySlFeH2/

Wear the Red Rose ๐ŸŒน๐Ÿ‰ (we both technically are hehe ๐Ÿ‘€) Massive thank you to @marlie_packer for showing her support for studs in the mud! A project launched earlier this year to help support grassroots rugby in Ghana whilst helping to change the lives of women and children for the better through the power of Rugby ๐Ÿ‰๐Ÿ‡ฌ๐Ÿ‡ญ Studs In The Mud are looking to host a women's 7s tournament next summer in Ghana and are raising funds . Please see LINK IN MY BIO to donate or visit @studs in the mud Facebook page to find out more ! Every little helps, Thank you ๐Ÿ™‚ @worldrugby #rugby @womensrugbyhub @womensrugbyshow @rugbysaracens1 @englandrugby #studsinthemud #womensrugby #givingback #ghanarugby #Alhamdulillah #supportinggrassroots

A post shared by Zainab Alema ๐Ÿ‡ฌ๐Ÿ‡ญ๐Ÿ‡ฌ๐Ÿ‡ง (@zeealema) on

“It’s about making a safe space. We are so underrepresented I thought I was the only one at one point so I’m trying to amplify our voices and create somewhere for them to play. We’re here for you to come and give you advice. I’m hoping that we can go and watch each other’s games, have little social things together and have a sense of belonging within the rugby community.”

Zainab goes on to talk about the one time she very nearly did turn her back on rugby. “I was ready to say you know what, I’m done, I can’t see myself in this space. It was quite emotional.

“I went on to the World Rugby guidelines and I wanted to see for myself if someone like me could play in a head scarf, a hijab. I was ready to leave but seeing that it was ok to play in one cemented it for me. There in black and white, it said I can practise my faith and play the game. I can be a Muslim rugby player.”

What does your dad think of rugby now?

“Oh he’s so proud. I was in The Telegraph a while back and he was straight off to the newsagents to buy a copy and get it framed to put it up on the wall and I thought, ‘hey are you the same person who was asking me why do I want to play rugby?’ He’s so super proud of me right now.”

“You have to see it to be it,” she concludes.

Zainab will carry on ‘bulldozing’ her way through the game, being different and standing out is no longer a negative for her. She’s using it to make rugby truly diverse. She’ll deserve that celebratory cup of tea if and when her rugby ambition is realised and there’s a Muslim woman wearing the red rose of England.

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Garry Ringrose: Ireland centre facing spell out with broken jaw

Ireland centre Garry Ringrose will be out for up to six weeks after breaking his jaw in Saturday’s 50-17 Six Nations victory over Italy, coach Andy Farrell confirmed.

Ringrose suffered the injury after his face came in contact with Edoardo Padovani’s knee when he tried to charge down the Italy winger’s clearance during the first half of the contest in an empty Aviva Stadium in Dublin.

The 25-year-old will miss Ireland’s final Six Nations game against France next week, where a bonus-point victory in Paris will guarantee them the title.

  • Ireland go top, but may regret late concession
  • Six Nations: Ireland 50-17 Italy recap

“Garry Ringrose has broken his jaw so bad news for us all,” said Farrell.

“He’s been so good for us the last 10 days, he has been absolutely fantastic with his leadership and he was a big part of the reason why we got what we wanted out of today.

“He was unfortunate with his thumb injury earlier in the Six Nations and has come back and had a setback like that which will keep him out for four to six weeks, so we’re gutted for Garry.”

Ringrose could potentially be ruled out of Ireland’s Autumn Nations Cup campaign which starts in November.

Ireland are scheduled to face Wales on November 13, England on November 21, and Georgia eight days later.

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Jack Nowell set to miss England’s autumn internationals with toe injury

Jack Nowell is set to miss England’s autumn international fixtures after revealing he is to undergo surgery on a ligament injury in his toe.

The 27-year-old says he has been playing through the injury as he helped the Exeter Chiefs to a historic European Champions Cup and Premiership double.

  • Exeter pip Wasps to secure historic double
  • Ireland go top but may regret late concession
  • England vs Barbarians cancelled due to Covid breach

Nowell broke the news after playing the entirety of Exeter’s 19-13 win over Wasps on Saturday that saw them seal their second Premiership title.

He said: “I’ve ruptured the ligaments around my toe and had to dig deep a little bit. I’ve not trained at all for two weeks so it’s something I have to get fixed and once I’ve sobered up I’ll find out.

“It’s been horrendous, it’s my big toe so any drive has been painful. I played in the final last week so spent the week trying to get the swelling out of it.

“But I would never have forgiven myself if I hadn’t given it a go and it’s great to be backed by the coaches.”

Exeter head coach Rob Baxter said: “He’s battled through and done everything he can and you have to give him credit and to do that for the club when the international matches are coming along,” he said.

Nowell also featured in all 80 minutes of the Chiefs’ 31-27 victory against Racing 92 in the Champions Cup final on October 17.

Nowell has been a regular in Eddie Jones’ England squads since the Australian became head coach in 2015 and would have been a strong contender to feature in their four Tests over the next five weeks.

England conclude the delayed Six Nations in Italy on October 31 before hosting Georgia on November 14 and Ireland on November 21, and then travelling to face Wales on November 28.

Exeter pip Wasps to secure historic double

A Henry Slade try and 14 points via the boot of Joe Simmonds saw Rob Baxter’s Chiefs secure their second Premiership title with a 19-13 win over Wasps in driving rain at a deserted Twickenham.

The triumph also saw Exeter confirm a historic cup double, following on from their 31-27 European Cup final victory over Racing 92 in Bristol last week.

Wasps, who came into the final minus 11 squad players due to positive coronavirus tests and close contact protocols, scored their points through a Jacob Umaga try, Jimmy Gopperth conversion and two Gopperth penalties.

Lee Blackett’s side were always in the tight and error-ridden contest, played out in torrential rain for its entirety, but were left to rue a late five-metre lineout throw which was critically stolen by Exeter replacement Jonny Gray.

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Match Report – Ireland 50 – 17 Italy

Ireland scored seven tries and 50 points to move to the top of the 2020 Six Nations table with a bonus-point win over Italy, but the late concession of a try could hurt their title chances. 

Debutant wing Hugo Keenan scored two tries, while fellow debutant Will Connors scored a try and earned the man of the match for an all-action display in defence and at the breakdown.

CJ Stander, Johnny Sexton, Bundee Aki and Dave Heffernan added further tries, while Sexton kicked five conversions and a penalty, with Ross Byrne adding a further conversion.

For Italy, an Edoardo Padovani intercept try, plus a further Paolo Garbisi try in the final play of the match – after Ireland had taken a drop-goal conversion to ensure further play – brought them 17 points.

Ireland now travel to face France in Paris in the final round of the Six Nations next week, while England travel to face Italy, with the title likely to come down to bonus-points and points difference.

More to follow…

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Wales ‘firebreak’ lockdown: Elite sport allowed to go ahead

Wales’ Six Nations match against Scotland is among the sporting fixtures that will go ahead during the “firebreak” lockdown as the imposed measures do not include elite sport.

The Welsh Government confirmed elite professional sport can continue during the lockdown, which will run for 17 days from 6pm on Friday until November 9.

First Minister Mark Drakeford said the introduction of a new lockdown would deliver a “short, sharp shock” in an attempt to halt coronavirus cases.

Wayne Pivac’s side travel to Paris this weekend to take on France in a warm-up match before hosting the Scots on October 31 in their final Six Nations game from March’s rearranged schedule.

Championship sides Swansea City and Cardiff City will be able to fulfil their fixtures for the duration of the lockdown, as will Newport County in League Two and Wrexham in the National League.

The Guinness PRO14 schedule will similarly not be affected by the lockdown, nor will horse racing. However, the elite programme, which is part-funded by the Welsh Government and focuses on developing Olympic, Paralympic and Commonwealth Games success, will be put on hold.

“Sportspeople who work and earn a living through sport are allowed to continue working, and like everyone else they can leave home to do so if they cannot work from home,” read a statement on the Welsh Government website. “However, the elite programme, overseen by Sport Wales, will be suspended during this circuit breaker period.

“Fixtures involving professional sportspeople are allowed to continue behind closed doors. All participants, such as players, officials, coaches, and broadcasters, are there in a working capacity.”

Golf courses, tennis courts, leisure centres and swimming pools will be closed during the lockdown as recreational sport is temporarily suspended, but people are permitted to leave home to exercise with members of their household and/or a carer.

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Challenge Cup final: Ian Watson calls on Salford Red Devils to keep building after loss

Ian Watson is in no doubt Salford Red Devils are still moving in the right direction after a narrow defeat to Leeds Rhinos in the Challenge Cup final.

Second-half tries from Pauli Pauli and James Greenwood had put the Red Devils four points up with just under a quarter of an hour to play, but Ash Handley’s second try and a drop goal from Luke Gale saw Leeds snatch a 17-16 win.

The loss at Wembley in another of rugby league’s major showpieces comes just over a year after Salford were beaten by St Helens in the Super League Grand Final and head coach Watson believes it shows how far the club has come in recent seasons.

  • Gale snatches Challenge Cup glory for Leeds

“It shows the club and the team are moving in the right place from where we have been and they’re competing in these big games now,” Watson said.

“With everything that has happened and to come here with it ending up being a 17-16 result, players and staff and everybody being absolutely devastated we’ve not been able to win, is probably a sign of how far we’ve come as a group and a team over the last few years as well.

“The good thing is, we’ve been to a Grand Final last year, we’ve been to a Challenge Cup final this year and we’ve kind of backed up what we did, and it’s for us to keep building.”

The former Salford half-back was left to rue missed opportunities from his team in both halves of the match, citing Krisnan Inu and Niall Evalds both putting in kicks in dangerous positions when he felt they could have taken other options with the ball in hand as two examples.

We’ve been to a Grand Final last year, we’ve been to a Challenge Cup final this year and we’ve kind of backed up what we did, and it’s for us to keep building.

Ian Watson

He would not be drawn on whether or not referee Liam Moore’s decision to pull up try-scorer Pauli Pauli for an incorrect play-the-ball on halfway, leading to Leeds getting into position for Gale to kick the winning one-pointer, was unduly harsh though.

“There were small margins in the game where we could have done certain things better to win it ourselves,” Watson said.

“I thought we opened them up a hell of a lot in attack and we just weren’t composed enough with the final pass.

“We were trying to find kicks to score tries off rather than turn them over on their try-line. We just weren’t smart enough at those times to capitalise and put Leeds on the end of some aggressive defence.

“There were a few turning points in that game and we did think when we scored that [Greenwood] try, it was looking like it was our day. We just needed to be composed and good enough to defend out that result.”

The nature of the loss made it even more agonising for the team and Watson made no secret of the fact everyone was feeling the hurt in the immediate aftermath of the final.

However, he urged his side to focus on finishing the Super League season strongly as they start to build towards 2021.

“It will sting, and it already was in the dressing room,” Watson said. “We’ve got some players who are right at the back end of their careers now in Mark Flanagan and Kris Welham – even Kev [Brown] is not getting any younger.

It shows the club and the team are moving in the right place from where we have been and they’re competing in these big games now.

Ian Watson

“You don’t know when you’re going to be here or whether you could get here again, so it was important for us to take that opportunity.

“Leeds have got the win and we congratulate them on the win. We’ve got to move forward, focus on the rest of the season and finish the season well.”

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Bristol will be ready for Premiership final if called upon, says Pat Lam

Bristol Bears head coach Pat Lam insists his players will be ready to step into next weekend’s Gallagher Premiership final and try to double up after winning the European Challenge Cup for the first time in their history.

The Bears beat Toulon 32-19 in Aix-en-Provence to become the ninth English Premiership side to take the title.

Harry Randall and Max Mallins scored tries and fly-half Callum Sheedy landed 22 points with a perfect eight from eight successful kicks at goal.

  • Bristol win European Challenge Cup
  • Bristol could replace Wasps in Premiership final

The victory came a week on from Bristol’s defeat to Wasps in the Premiership semi-finals, but Lam confirmed after seeing his side lift the trophy that they have been put on standby to play in the Twickenham showpiece against Exeter Chiefs after Wasps had four positive coronavirus tests.

“We obviously want Wasps and Exeter to meet in the final because they thoroughly deserve to be there and that’s the final that should happen,” said Lam.

“But in the world in which we live in with Covid we don’t know. We have been told we are on standby, so if we are told we are in the final we will get everyone together and say let’s go.

“It is just the world we live in at the moment. Things turn all the time, but we certainly hope Wasps and Exeter make it through.”

Oรน est le blackbird? ๐Ÿ™‹โ€โ™‚๏ธ pic.twitter.com/bsSOEhmRlr

The Chiefs will be hoping to make it an English double in Europe by winning the Heineken Champions Cup for the first time at Ashton Gate on Saturday when they face Racing 92.

Bristol should be back home by then and will no doubt be casting an eye over proceedings rather than celebrating a winning end to their season.

“I said to the players before the game, let’s go out and celebrate who we are and what that means. The way we play the game, our culture, the bit of love we have for each other,” said Lam.

“The emphasis was about having a bit of joy. We knew we were going to be under pressure against a massive Toulon side. We came through it by sticking to the Bears way.

“The players did it on behalf of the whole squad and the saddest thing was that we couldn’t have everyone with us – Steve Lansdown and our captain, Steve Luatua. Congratulations to him and his wife, Olivia, on having a little girl 45 minutes before kick-off.

“Our whole vision was to inspire our community with some rugby success. This is a moment of inspiration, but we have to go back and get better.

“We aim to get better with every game and we are growing, but there is still a long way to go. It is still good for our development to have won a really good trophy.”

England flanker Ben Earl, on loan from Saracens, was voted man of the match, while Sheedy gave Wales coach Wayne Pivac a nudge with his points haul a week before Wales face France in Paris to start their autumn campaign.

“It’s one of the first trophies Bristol have won in I don’t know how long. We were so calm and so controlled out there, even when we were behind, and we trusted in our system,” said Earl.

“I’m just so proud of the boys and our defence showed the character of the team. We’ve had a bit of a tough journey since being together in lockdown – some highs and then huge lows like last weekend.

“The mood in the camp after the Wasps result was very low and it took a lot to bounce back. But there was a confidence among the group that we were going to get the job done.

“You could tell the feeling was there right from the start of the game.”

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Rugby League chairman calls for more Government support during pandemic

Rugby League chairman Simon Johnson has reiterated his plea for more Government support during the coronavirus pandemic.

Johnson has thanked the Government for the £16m loan but also warns the game remains in a perilous state and called for more support.

“Our game is still in a vulnerable state,” Johnson wrote in his programme notes ahead of Saturday’s Challenge Cup final. “We have worked hard to make our stadiums safe for spectators and yet we have not been able to let spectators into them.

“We have implemented class-leading bio-security protocols and yet may have to remain closed for six more months.

“We have followed and continue to follow every piece of Government guidance. But we say to Government that if, by following Government guidance, we end up risking the survival of our clubs and the future sustainability of our game, we
must look to Government to help to sustain us.

“We are ready to be part of the economic recovery and the return of our national life to normality but we can only do that if we have been able to survive the restrictions.

“I hope that Government will continue to look favourably on our request for measures to help rugby league to help the nation’s fight against coronavirus.”

Johnson has also defended the decision to keep Saturday’s final between Leeds and Salford at Wembley even though it will be played behind closed doors, insisting there will be no asterisk placed against the winners of the 125th anniversary final.

“This Challenge Cup final will be remembered for being played with the lowest attendance in history. There will be fewer than 200 people in the whole stadium, something which we all bitterly regret.

“Wembley’s wide open spaces will echo to the shouts of the players and the coaches. This great stadium will provide a lonely backdrop to the compelling action on the field.

“To those who criticise our decision to play this final at Wembley, I retort that it is entirely fitting that we should be here – the relationship between Wembley and the Challenge Cup final is so strong.

“For, in this strange and most challenging of seasons, it is significant and praiseworthy that we have arrived at the first showpiece occasion; at the award of the first trophy of the season and that we are trying to be as normal as we
can.

“Whichever of Leeds Rhinos and Salford Red Devils are the winners, their name will be forever written in the history books as Coral Challenge Cup winners.

“There will be no asterisk next to this triumph for whoever wins. Whichever of Luke Gale or Lee Mossop is the winning captain, they will lift, down on the pitch, the real Coral Challenge Cup trophy.”

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Challenge Cup final: Leeds Rhinos’ Rhyse Martin takes long road to the top

As someone who has played for the Papua New Guinea national team at a World Cup, Rhyse Martin is no stranger to rugby league’s big stages.

When he steps out onto the field at Wembley with his Leeds Rhinos team-mates on Saturday for his first experience of a Challenge Cup final though, it will be completely different to when he made his international bow.

Partly because the match against Salford Red Devils will be played inside an empty stadium – although even the most fervent Cup final crowd at Wembley might struggle to match the passion and devotion of fans in the one country in the world where the 13-man code considered is the national sport.

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  • History beckons for Watson and Salford
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But the biggest difference is that prior to kick-off, they will not have to walk the pitch to clear the playing surface of rubble as was the case when Martin first lined up for the Kumuls for a Test match against Tonga in Lae in 2014.

“Before the game we had to line up next to each other, walk down the field and get all of the big rocks off the field,” Martin said.

“Literally, the middle third of the field was all gravel and everything outside of that was nice green grass. Everyone was just trying to stay out of that middle part, so I’m glad Wembley is not like that.

“I had heaps of carries that day with it being shifted out to an edge.”

Martin has quickly established himself as one of the key players in the Rhinos’ revival since joining from Canterbury Bulldogs in July last year.

But it has been a long route to the top for the goal-kicking back row, who did not make his NRL debut until the age of 25 with the Bulldogs.

Martin originally came through the youth set-up at their cross-city rivals Sydney Roosters, but was let go before making a first-grade appearance after spending the 2014 season playing for feeder club Newtown Jets.

That led to a return to his home state of Queensland – Cairns-born Martin qualifies to play for Papua New Guinea though his father – with Townsville Blackhawks, where he played alongside future Leeds team-mate Robert Lui prior to the half-back joining Cup final opponents Salford.

It has been a long road, but I’m kind of glad it went that way because if I got the opportunity when I was a kid, I don’t think I’d still be playing.

Rhyse Martin

From there, the Bulldogs came calling and after making a try-scoring debut against Brisbane Broncos the rest is history. However, the 27-year-old has no complaints about having to be patient before finally achieving his long-held ambition of playing at the sport’s top level.

“It has been a long road, but I’m kind of glad it went that way because if I got the opportunity when I was a kid, I don’t think I’d still be playing,” Martin said.

“I don’t think I’d have been ready and would have burnt out my career, so to speak. I had to grow up a fair bit, change the way I was preparing for games and I’m just glad I still get to be a professional.

“There was a point when I thought it wasn’t going to happen and it had always been a dream of mine as a kid to play in the NRL, and I wouldn’t have forgiven myself if I’d have given up.

“I was just happy I stuck in and where it’s led me now, I get to play in a Challenge Cup final at Wembley.”

Unlike many of his Rhinos team-mates, the Challenge Cup was never something which featured much on Martin’s radar as a youngster growing up in Queensland.

He has quickly got to grips with the significance of rugby league’s most prestigious knock-out competition since moving to this side of the world though, and is under no illusions about what it would mean to both him and Leeds to lift the trophy at Wembley.

“It’s a massive thing,” Martin, who scored the opening try in Leeds’ 26-12 semi-final win over Wigan Warriors, said. “I’ve come over here to win competitions and to get that so early on, it would be awesome for me.

I’ve come over here to win competitions and to get [the Challenge Cup] so early on, it would be awesome for me.

Rhyse Martin

“It’s getting the club back to where it should be. The team and the squad we’ve got, we’re heading in the right direction and what we want to do is win this game and keep building for years to come.

“For me, that’s the whole reason I came over here.”

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Team of the Week: Premiership semi-finalists, PRO14, Wallabies and All Blacks combine

We pick the standout players from semi-finals of the Gallagher Premiership, the latest round of the PRO14 and a Bledisloe Cup clash…

15. Max Malins (Bristol)

Full-back Malins may have been on the losing side in Bristol’s Premiership semi-final against Wasps on Saturday, but the free-running back put in a super showing.

The man who started the season as a Saracen, made 18 carries and carved out a huge 147 metres with ball in hand in Coventry – both statistics the most of anyone from either side on the pitch.

Malins also beat one defender, was involved in two clean breaks and scored a try after a stunning chip and chase.

14. Josh Adams (Cardiff Blues)

The Cardiff Blues have made a flying start to the new PRO14 season, as two bonus-point wins from their opening two fixtures has them top of Conference B.

Key to their success has been the displays of wing Adams, and the Wales international was brilliant as the Blues beat Connacht on Saturday.

Your Guinness Player of the Match – @JoshAdams951ย ๐ŸŒŸ

A dazzling display from the wing wizard helped @cardiff_bluesย earn a bonus-point win against @connachtrugbyย ๐Ÿ‘#CBLvCON report ๐Ÿ‘‰ https://t.co/W4tDynGKvS pic.twitter.com/xpXMz9QHYN

The 25-year-old made 75 metres with ball in hand, beat three defenders and created two clean breaks as his attacking caused all manner of problems, while he also contributed eight carries and seven tackles.

13. Henry Slade (Exeter Chiefs)

The Chiefs look in ominous form at the moment as they booked a fifth straight Premiership final appearance on Saturday with a comfortable semi-final win over Bath, and gear up for this weekend’s Champions Cup final vs Racing 92.

In an unprecedented era of success for the club, home-grown centre Slade has been front and centre to their good work, and was a key man again in victory at Sandy Park against Bath.

A classy midfielder going forward, the England man displayed his superb defensive strength against Bath as the Chiefs suffocated and squeezed their rivals. Slade made nine tackles and earned a turnover, while also chipping in five carries for a substantial 38 metres, beating one defender.

12. Jamie Roberts (Dragons)

The Dragons picked up a valuable PRO14 win on Friday over Zebre at Rodney Parade, as 33-year-old centre Roberts picked up the man of the match award.

Your Guinness Player of the Match – @Jamiehuwrobertsย โญ๏ธ

It's been a perfect day for the @dragonsrugbyย centre – announcing his wife is pregnant in the morning, dominating in the #GuinnessPRO14 in the evening ๐Ÿ™Œ#DRAvZEB report ๐Ÿ‘‰ https://t.co/auVaQEpTQg pic.twitter.com/21PetLdYBJ

Doctor Roberts looked like the powerful inside-centre he was in his pomp for Wales against the Italian outfit, pummelling away at the gain-line for 80 minutes,

The Dragons man made 10 carries, earned 32 hard-fought metres, beat two defenders, made a clean break and scored a try in victory.

11. Jacob Stockdale (Ulster)

Having burst onto the scene in stunning fashion in 2018, 2020 proved a much more difficult year for Ireland and Ulster back Stockdale. On Saturday away to the Ospreys, Stockdale looked back to his rampaging best.

The 24-year-old showed up for 12 carries – only teammate and man of the match Marcell Coetzee made more – while also carving out 61 metres in attack with ball in hand – the most of anyone on the day.

Stockdale also beat some six defenders, made three clean breaks and scored Ulster’s opening try as they registered an impressive win at the Liberty.

10. Joe Simmonds (Exeter Chiefs)

Perhaps the most impressive performance of the weekend goes to Exeter playmaker and skipper Simmonds, who was outstanding once again.

The 23-year-old out-half is surely on the cusp of international recognition with England, with his displays this season having guided Exeter to a European Cup final, and now a Premiership final too.

The talented 10 made 60 metres with ball in hand against Bath – only Chiefs full-back Stuart Hogg made more – while Simmonds also stepped up for 10 tackles and six carries.

He also beat three defenders, made two clean breaks, produced a stunning try assist via a break, step and offload off the deck and was 100 per cent off the tee, kicking five from five.

9. Dan Robson (Wasps)

Facing Simmonds and Exeter in the Premiership final on Saturday October 24 will be Wasps, and one of their most important men is undoubtedly scrum-half Robson.

Like Simmonds, Robson must surely be on the verge of a Test career on the back of his club performances, with his display for Wasps in their semi-final win over Bristol fantastic.

Robson’s kicking game was superb, as was his speed of pass, while he also beat two defenders, made one clean break, earned one turnover and scored a try.

1. Alec Hepburn (Exeter Chiefs)

So much of Exeter’s success is built upon a platform of set-piece superiority and tight, close-range attacking. Indeed, the men from Devon are nearly impossible to stop from five metres out.

Principal to their display on Saturday was loosehead Hepburn, as he shone for 57 minutes. The prop made 14 tackles, eight carries, beat one defender, and was part of a front-row which produced four scrum penalties.

2. Luke Cowan-Dickie (Exeter Chiefs)

At hooker, there could be no one else this week. Cowan-Dickie has had a magnificent campaign – either side of the lockdown – and continued that form against Bath on Saturday.

Cowan-Dickie made 12 tackles and 10 carries in the win, while also scoring Exeter’s vital second try, forming part of the same dominant scrum unit as Hepburn, and – most crucially – was 100 per cent at the lineout, landing all five throws.

3. Ofa Tuungafasi (New Zealand)

Tighthead was a difficult position to pick this week, but without Tuungafasi’s – and a couple of other All Blacks’ – work-rate in defence, New Zealand would have lost at home to Australia on Sunday.

As it was they came out with a 16-16 draw, but were mightily fortunate to do so. Prop Tuungafasi has been in great form for the Blues since rugby restarted in New Zealand, however, and his form continued on the Test stage.

The tighthead made a phenomenal 15 tackles – only three players between the sides made more – earned a critical breakdown penalty and was part of a scrum effort which was 100 per cent on New Zealand ball, and gained an ascendancy in the second half, earning two free-kicks on Wallabies put-in.

4. Lukhan Salakaia-Loto (Australia)

Playing in the second row against the All Blacks in Wellington on Sunday, Salakaia-Loto had perhaps his best Wallabies game to date.

The lock led a forward pack which bettered New Zealand, and really did enough to deserve victory and a bit of history despite the final 16-16 scoreline.

Salakaia-Loto made 12 carries, beat one defender, earned 27 metres, made six tackles and claimed three lineout balls.

5. Will Rowlands (Wasps)

Our second lock slot goes to Wasps’ Rowlands, and though he may not be as heralded as the other victorious Premiership second rows on Saturday – Joe Launchbury, Jonny Hill, Jonny Gray – he outperformed all of them.

The 29-year-old, who earned his first cap for Wales in February, was tremendously hard-working at the Ricoh Arena against Bristol, as he made 10 tackles, earned a turnover, made five carries and was the leading man for Wasps at lineout, taking four balls – the most of anyone on his side.

6. Jack Willis (Wasps)

Is there a player in better form in world rugby at the moment than Wasps back-row Willis? If you’ve been watching him, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone else.

Man of the match again for Wasps on Saturday, the 23-year-old seems to excel at each and every facet of rugby, and has a habit of popping up in attack or defence at the most pivotal of moments.

In Wasps’ semi-final win, Willis made six tackles, earned a crucial breakdown turnover, put in an amazing try-saving intervention, made some 41 metres off six carries, beat two defenders, made a clean break and scored yet another try. We will likely see him thriving for England before long.

7. Sam Cane (New Zealand)

But for Cane, New Zealand would almost certainly have lost to the Wallabies over the weekend.

Under pressure in his first game as All Blacks skipper, Cane delivered with an tireless display within a beaten forward pack.

Indeed, the flanker made a monumental 25 tackles in the draw, while also missing none. He also earned two turnovers, made 22 metres, beat two defenders and made a clean break.

8. Marcell Coetzee (Ulster)

Man of the match for Ulster as they won at Ospreys on Saturday, the Irish province just aren’t the same when the Springbok isn’t in the team.

Coetzee makes a monumental difference to Ulster, and at the Liberty Stadium, he made 17 carries – the most of anyone – earned 34 metres, put in 12 tackles, displayed some wonderful passing, earned two turnovers, beat three defenders and scored a try. What a player.

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