Talesha O'Neill still has something more to give

It's certainly been a long journey, but Talesha O'Neill is finally playing back playing rugby league at the elite level and this time it's for the Parramatta Eels.

When O'Neill found out last week that she would be making her debut for the club against the Wests Tigers, she cried and so did the Parramatta Eels physio.

"Matt, our physio is amazing and is the reason I'm playing," said O' Neill.

"During the pre-season I was seeing him twice a week to keep my knee and body strong.

"When I got my starting number, I told him it was because of him and we both cried.

"It was a lovely moment and a recognition that without those support staff I would not have got through pre-season."

But to understand just how significant that moment was, you need to understand a little bit more about O'Neill's journey.

O'Neill played her first game of rugby league for New South Wales in 2012. In 2012, very few people were talking about women in rugby league and the women had to pay for everything themselves.

"We were wearing men's footy shorts and our jerseys were down to our knees," said O'Neill.

"We got to play at Penrith Park and we trained on the back fields and in caravan parks; but I didn't care because it was my dream to wear the jersey.

"I also made the All Stars team and played alongside Karyn Murphy."

But then, O'Neill decided to join the army, moved to Townsville and played a mixture of sports including rugby league and rugby union.

Then an opportunity arose. In 2016, the Cronulla Sharks announced they were offering contracts to women for a 9-a-side competition. O'Neill decided this was her chance, flew herself down and trialled. She was contracted and received just enough money to pay for private health insurance.

That's when things really started moving at pace. O'Neill played City v Country in 2017, represented the Blues again in 2017 and also played in Papua New Guinea as part of the Prime Minister's XIII.

O'Neill met Brad Donald during that tour.

"Brad told me this was my time to shine," said O' Neill.

"I played a good game and then was picked in the Jillaroos squad for the Rugby League World Cup in 2017, which was a massive highlight for me.

"So was that first State of Origin game at North Sydney Oval where we stayed on the field signing autographs for hours after the game ended."

At that point the National Women's Rugby League Premiership had been announced and O'Neill signed with the St George Illawarra Dragons for the first season. But, injury had struck and O'Neill had had knee surgery just before pre-season, so did not have the opportunity to do a full pre-season.

In her own words, O'Neill was not at her best that season.

"I had had such a good year and I didn't want to let that opportunity slip," said O'Neill.

"I really wanted to be part of the NRLW that first year."

Then more injury. O'Neill had two ankle surgeries, two knee surgeries and two nose surgeries. Back in 2020 she also gave birth to her first child, Bailey.

In fact, she played in a Grand Final already pregnant.

After so many surgeries, O'Neill was unsure if she would ever make it back.

"My family were always supportive, but even they were starting to think I was done because my body was broken," said O'Neill.

"But I knew in myself that I still had something more to give and the message from my husband was 'don't let anyone tell you that you can't do it''.

O'Neill decided to play one more game with the Australian Defence Force against the Queensland Police Force. At that game her now agent noticed her and encouraged her to have another go.

Her agent got on the phone and started making phone calls and soon after she had an offer from the Parramatta Eels.

"Andy Patmore was my assistant coach in 2016 at Origin, so he knew me as a player and so did Dean Widders" said O'Neill.

"I am really thankful they gave me the chance to play and I have proved that I can do it and that I am fit enough."

Like many women, O'Neill has struggled with self-doubt. But since her first season in NRLW, technology has advanced significantly. Now all the players have GPS trackers and even when she doubts herself, O'Neill can look at the data and see herself in the top 50 percent of players.

As mentioned, O'Neill gave birth back in 2020 and her "Bailey boy" is along with her for the journey this time.

O'Neill did not want to disrupt her son's schedule too much, which means that she drives up and back to Newcastle twice a week so Bailey can keep going to the same childcare. That's almost a six hour round trip.

Fortunately the women's game has also developed to a point where clubs are providing additional support for parents.

"The Eels have helped with a nanny when I have training and our wellbeing manager, Auntie Chrissie is always happy to babysit when we have events," said O'Neill. "It is so nice to have him around the team too; he is a little show off and the team love him."

Juggling being an elite athlete and a mum is something O'Neill is still struggling with.

"I have Bailey with me half the week and start to get into a routine, but then I need to drop him in Newcastle with my husband and I feel lonely when he goes," said O'Neill.

"But my two worlds do combine when I get to have him in the sheds and he soaks it all in; even after a loss having Bailey boy there reminds me that there is more to life than footy.

"I'll always have my Bailey boy when things don't go to plan on the field."