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'My best mate, my hero': Wheeler's green and gold tribute to grandfather

You might know Holli Wheeler as the hard-running Dragons lock who stands out on field with blonde hair and taped head.

And without that distinct piece of headwear, there's no guarantees that the 32-year-old's biggest supporter would have never missed a moment of her game.

After being named in the Jillaroos squad for the upcoming World Cup, Wheeler revealed pulling on her trademark headband will be a tribute to her late grandfather who passed away in the final weeks of the NRLW season. 

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"To be honest the last couple of weeks have been a bit of a blur," Wheeler told "The day before playing Newcastle in our last round game I found out that my grandfather had passed away which was really devastating," 

"Although he was quite sick, he’s been my hero and my best mate for so long so going through the funeral and then two heavy losses, the last few weeks are a bit of a blur, to be honest.

"Over the last couple of years, he’d lost both of his legs which was really hard because he was like me before that, energetic and loved being up and about. So for him to have the footy to look forward to over the weekend prior to his passing was pretty special.

“That’s why I taped my head this season — one to keep my hair in but it was also like a distinct kind of feature that made it easier for my Grandfather to pick me out on the television.”

Holli Wheeler made the most tackles of any Dragons NRLW player in the 2022 season.
Holli Wheeler made the most tackles of any Dragons NRLW player in the 2022 season. ©NRL Photos

The 2022 NRLW Dragons' Player of The Year said that while it is difficult to accept that her grandfather will never watch her play in the green and gold, her trademark headpiece will be a tribute to his passing.

“He was really crook towards the end. My aunty was a full-time carer for him and she’d send me photos or videos of him complaining about the ref or the opposition after the game,” Wheeler said.

“And that was the best feeling because I knew he was actively watching me.

“I would have loved for him to have seen me play in the World Cup but I know he’s still supporting me and is still there with me. And I’ll probably still wear the headband.”

It’s been a long road to the World Cup stage for Wheeler after making her NRLW debut in 2018.

For the then-30-year-old, suffering an ACL injury in 2020 immediately felt like a devastating end to her career but a surprise chat from Jillaroos coach Brad Donald was enough to convince the Dragons star that her dreams were still alive.

“I remember at the Nines competition when I did my knee, the first thing I thought was that I’m done — this dream of mine to play World Cup isn’t going to happen,” Wheeler reflected.

“But the next day I ran into Brad Donald. I just started crying saying, 'I’ve done my knee, I’m old and the World Cup is coming up next year.' But Brad told me that I can’t think like that yet. I just needed to focus on my recovery and getting back to footy.

“Obviously a lot of emotions flooded through at that time but he definitely helped me try and think more positively. Then when I got home it was within days that I decided the World Cup was still a goal of mine and I was going to come back bigger and better.”

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After her omission from this year’s Origin clash, Wheeler said she refused to let any more setbacks stand in between her dream and a green and gold jersey — continuing to find a way to turn her disappointment into determination.

“To be honest, I wasn’t overly confident this year, especially after missing Origin, I didn’t really know where I stood on the rep arena," she said.

“But missing that Origin game was probably the best thing that happened to me because it just lit a fire in my belly and made me realise how badly I wanted to play in the World Cup.

“And I haven’t reflected on the semi-final loss too much but it hurts. Jamie (Soward) and I spoke after the game about how that’s not the quality of footy we want to play or how we want to represent the club.

“So the next time I get to run out and play some footy, it’s wearing my nation’s colours. It's a chance to be better and I’m ready to make a big statement.”

Acknowledgement of Country

St George Illawarra Dragons respect and honour the Traditional Custodians of the land and pay our respects to their Elders past, present and future. We acknowledge the stories, traditions and living cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders peoples, where our games are played, our programs are conducted and in the communities we support.

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