Quitting a 10-year pack-a-day smoking habit has helped Dragons centre Stephanie Mooka earn an NRLW contract this season and fulfil her dream of representing Queensland in State of Origin.
Mooka made the stunning revelation after moving from Cairns to join her new St George Illawarra team-mates for training ahead of the upcoming NRL Holden Women’s Premiership.
The 28-year-old had never played at an elite level before this season and gave up smoking earlier in the year in the belief that this would be her last chance.
After impressing at the National Championships, she was approached about playing for the Dragons and gained selection for Queensland in the State of Origin match at North Sydney Oval in June.
“This year I made a few sacrifices in terms of my health and everything just started happening,” Mooka said
“I smoked for years, I started smoking when I was 18 so it was 10 years. I used to smoke a packet a day, I was really bad. It was really tough for me to give that up but now I wish I had quit sooner.”
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The last NRL player known to be a regular smoker was former international Jason Smith, who retired at North Queensland in 2007 after stints with Canterbury, Parramatta and Canberra, as well as Hull FC.
Coaching staff at a Jillaroos training camp earlier this month were surprised to learn of Mooka’s history as a smoker as it was unlikely she would have been able to meet the minimum testing requirements if she had not quit.
“I have been trying to make it [to Queensland selection] for six years and this year was going to be my last year to have a crack,” Mooka said. I thought if I didn’t make it that would be it for me.
“I think a lot of the time my match fitness has let me down and that is why I couldn’t go as far. Last year it was very obvious that I was unfit. I knew smoking was a big part of it and all of the other girls used to encourage me to try and stop.
“I always wanted to give up but I had to be mentally tough. I am really glad now that I did. The Nationals were the first time in a long time that I actually lasted a full game. It felt really good too, to achieve something big.
"I watched the NRLW comp last year and was actually shocked that the Dragons showed interest in me.”
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The Broncos were also interested in Mooka but St George Illawarra coach Daniel Lacey made an impression and she chose the Dragons.
For Mooka, training in a high performance environment is new as she has been just happy to be able to play after the women’s competition in Cairns folded in 2011.
While other players moved to Brisbane or Townsville to continue playing, Mooka took up rugby union, and then Rugby 7s, but when those competitions also folded she turned to AFL to stay fit.
Mooka, who has a nine-year-old son, would attend trials for the North Queensland Marlins each year and played alongside the likes of Heather Ballinger and Jenni-Sue Hoepper but was never selected for higher honours until this season.
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“I reckon it would be good if the Cowboys put a team in the NRLW because there are limited opportunities for the girls up there and you have to travel long distances for rep trials,” Mooka said. “I would put my hand up for that if they did.”
For now, Mooka’s focus is on the Dragons but she is already caught the eye of Jillaroos coach Brad Donald, who selected her on the wing in a merit team named after Origin.
Mooka attended the recent Jillaroos training camp on the Gold Coast, and strength and conditioning coach Simon Buxton said she had performed well in the 30-15 intermittent fitness test and other testing.
The 30-15 intermittent fitness test is a shuttle-type beep test which requires players to run 40 metres in 30 second intervals, with 15 seconds of passive recovery. The first 40 metres is performed at 9kph, with the speed increasing incrementally by 0.5kph.
“Stephanie got 17.5 [kph] and she would never have got that if she was still a smoker,” Buxton said. “Our minimum standard to play for the Jillaroos is 17 so she got 17.5, which is fantastic.
“That is a pretty good for a woman who has never done the test before and has also never been in a proper training program so I think if she is in a structured training environment at the Dragons she will have an even higher score next time.”
Mooka said: “I think if I was smoking I wouldn’t have gotten close to reaching that”.
With her rise in profile, Mooka is aware that she is also now a role model and is happy to offer advice to young girls.
“I am glad I gave up smoking because it has had a really positive change,” she said. “I have had a lot of people approach me to go and talk to the young girls at school about not smoking.
“My message to them is that you have got to make the right choices, especially when you are young, because it is going to affect you in the future and you have got to be very disciplined.”