WPL Player of the Week: Brooke Saunders

There are several Women's Eagles currently playing overseas to better their chances for the 2017 Women's Rugby World Cup team, but the United States is a destination as well. Capped international Brooke Saunders is looking to represent Australia in Ireland next year and is tuning up her game with New York Rugby Club (NYRC) this fall. The Women's Premier League (WPL) team is benefitting as well, and the Player of the Week was influential in Sunday's win against Atlanta.

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The 31-year-old helped Australia to a third-place finish at the 2014 Women's Rugby World Cup and has remained in the player pool ever since. The lock wasn't selected for the October tour in New Zealand, and with the domestic season in dormancy, Saunders looked abroad for playing opportunities. The U.S., and New York in particular, topped the list, and once Saunders talked with then-coach Wil Snape about NYRC's plans, the lock signed up.

"I stood there, listened, did what I was told on the field," Saunders recounted her first days with the team in early September. "Whatever's best for the team. The girls are great, and really talented. To even make the WPL team was an honor."

"She respects everyone and gets respect," said New York backs and skills coach Ryzsard Chadwick, who served as head coach Sunday against Atlanta. "There was a pretty seamless and quick buy-in with her, and she's helped with the on-field leadership."

The lock appreciated the give-and-take with player feedback and began to prove her worth during a pre-season game against Penn State and then WPL opener against the D.C. Furies. The 5'11" lock got the start Sunday alongside Eagle Alycia Washington in the second row. The Harlequins brought a ferocious, disruptive game to the breakdown, and did well to spoil clean ball to the backs. Although New York never quite silenced Atlanta, Saunders was instrumental in keeping the forwards organized and composed.

"The level of play was very high compared to Australia, at a high and fast pace," Saunders said. "The skill level between Australia and U.S. is very much the same, but Americans seem to be fitter. It's something they take care of compared to players back home. It's been good to come here and play-fast paced rugby. The game Sunday was really fast."

"She's been really good with leadership since she's joined us," Chadwick praised. "Her character and general positive attitude helped bring the team together. Her knowledge of the game and decision-making was really quite good, especially under pressure and with ball in hand. It was quite impressive."

Chadwick appreciates how Saunders is upping the rugby IQ across the entire team and the fact that she's a confident, natural leader rooted in her knowledge of the game. And like a handful of Women's Eagles, the second row has a 7s background as well. She has been playing touch since she was five years old, played league, and then picked up union as a fullback. She represented the Australian 7s team in 2013 in France.

"My recognition of space might be a bit better than others," Saunders reflected on her playing history. "I moved from fullback, so maybe I can see the opening of space more. But in the forwards, I love the set pieces - the lineouts and scrums - compared with the backs where you stand and wait for the ball."

Saunders will be in New York through the WPL national championship, and then return to Australia to continue the build to the 2017 Women's Rugby World Cup. In the meantime, she's helping raise the overall profile of New York, and her influence will be needed against Twin Cities this weekend.