Brazil rugby league hopeful Francesca Bunting at Headingley
Francesca Bunting qualifies to play for Brazil via her grandmother

For most elite sportspeople the path to that level is pretty conventional: you start young, join a professional team and play through the different age groups before making the first team and potentially earning international honours.

However, that isn’t the only route. Just ask Francesca Bunting.

The 26-year-old, who was born in St Albans, is hoping to represent Brazil at the 2021 Rugby League World Cup despite having never played a full rugby league game.

Her interest in the sport grew while she was living in Australia.

“I’d never really thought about playing rugby before,” admits Bunting. “I’d always been a massive fan of the game – I was a huge Saracens fan growing up.

“I met some girls who played rugby sevens for Manly Mermaids [in Sydney]. After going to watch some of the Manly games, I thought I’d give it a go and I really enjoyed it and have never looked back.”

Bunting qualifies to play for Brazil through her grandmother, who she expects to be “bringing the carnival vibes” regardless of whether she makes the final squad or not.

Her journey towards playing for Brazil started when she met their head coach Mat Gardner during her time in Australia.

“Matty trained me in the gym a couple of times and found out that my housemate and I played rugby. He then saw us playing and through chatting and training with him he said ‘I think you’d make a really good league player’,” she explains.

Brazil women's rugby league team dive in for a try
Brazil earned their place at the World Cup with a 48-0 win over a more established Argentina team in Sao Paulo last November

“We got talking and he said he played for Brazil, so I said ‘No way, I’ve got some Brazilian heritage’ and he asked me to send some footage and it went from there.

“It was a weird turn of events and meetings, but it’s an amazing opportunity and I’m excited to grasp it with both hands.”

Bunting has been named in an initial selection process, but is yet to meet any of her team-mates because of the coronavirus pandemic.

She will for the first time next February at a training camp where the initial squad will start to be cut.

Bunting does not speak Portuguese and has been using translation apps to communicate with the Brazil squad.

“We’re so lucky in the age that we live in with social media, and communication means no-one is that far away. It makes the world seem so much smaller,” she says.

“So many of the team have reached out to me and just been like ‘Hey, how’s the training going? I’m doing this, what have you been doing?’.

“It’s a really nice culture to be involved in and I can’t wait to go out and meet them.”

Brazil are the first South American country to qualify for the Rugby League World Cup and Bunting believes the team is going from “strength to strength” with their programmes “as good as any others”.

She is hopeful that progression will continue after the World Cup with 50p of every ticket sale raising funds for vital Unicef projects supporting children in the UK and Brazil.

Bunting works as a full-time marketing manger, and has been doing morning gym sessions and evening training sessions with a Championship rugby union side in an attempt to prepare for the challenges rugby league may present.

“I’ve started to adapt but I really need to start getting that tactical side of the league game,” she explains.

“I am hoping the transition won’t be too bad because it’s a combination of sevens and union, but I definitely just need to hone down on these skills and build on what I’ve got already.”

While Bunting knows getting into the final squad won’t be easy she is confident she is performing as her coaches want her to.

On 9 November 2021 the women’s tournament featuring eight teams will begin.

The first match will see Brazil line up against hosts England at Headingley in Leeds and Bunting admits she’ll be “overwhelmed” if she is selected.

“I was at Headingley recently, and it was just surreal standing around the pitch, seeing the dugouts, and how big the stadium actually is.

“I hadn’t really let myself think that far ahead, I’d just been taking it almost month by month, programme by programme, but actually being there and thinking ‘Oh my goodness, I could be walking out alongside Jodie [Cunningham]’ was just phenomenal’.

“I did get goosebumps and it did sort of make it a bit more real and spur me on.”

Extensive coverage of the men’s and women’s Rugby League World Cup will be on BBC TV, BBC iPlayer and the BBC Sport website and app.

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