Tears threaten to well in prop Elianna Walton's eyes every time she pulls on her cherished NSW jersey.
The Blues vice-captain will represent NSW for the 10th time in Friday's first stand-alone women's State Of Origin match at North Sydney Oval as her side's most experienced player. But less than three years ago she feared her rugby league days might have been over.
Forever blue: Elianna Walton hopes to help NSW to a women’s State of Origin win on Friday.
That upsetting realisation came in the aftermath of a major health scare. Walton collapsed at work and was forced to spend four months on the couch to let her body recover.
Her tedious juggling act of being a social worker, playing league and raising children Saphira and Zayden had become too much, and it left her physically and emotionally exhausted.
Walton began working with a neurosurgeon, determined to prove there was more rugby league in her future, and she immediately surrounded herself with photographs of Blues teammates to aid her recovery.
"All I thought about was playing football. When I was lying on the couch, I said to my husband [Mitchell] 'I don't care about anything else as long as I make it back to the Blues team'," Walton said.
"It means to much to me to be a part of the Blues. I have my photos of the girls up on my wall of our Blues team and I have my little post-it stickers and each day I kept reminding myself, these are the girls I want to play for, these are the girls I want to get better for."
Walton lost sensation in the left side of her body after collapsing and missed four months of work as she recovered.
"I just had to keep still and rest and I don't know what rest is," Walton said.
"It was really really hard. It was a mental battle for me because I know I'm physically strong. It was my body just needed to have a break.
"To come back from something like that was really scary for my family. I've had a lot of support from everyone … my community, my football family I call them.
"I had one of the best neurosurgeons in Sydney. He never ever once said 'you can't play footy again', he just said 'we have to get you better'.
"I don't listen to everyone, I don't even listen to my husband that often but when they said 'just rest', I listened."
Walton's goal was the 2016 clash with Queensland, when the women's game was still played as an interstate challenge known as the Nellie Doherty Cup.
Queensland won the first 16 such encounters, and the tide threatened to turn in 2015 when NSW secured a draw in Townsville.
That was a year after ex-St George Illawarra and Wests Tigers half Matthew Head had taken charge as coach alongside former Canterbury and Melbourne forward Jamie Feeney, who is now a Jillaroos assistant.
The appointment of Head and Feeney kick-started a cultural shift in the NSW team and the pathways beneath it, and former Blues prop Ben Cross has continued it on since taking over as Blues coach two years ago.
Walton made it back for the historic 2016 match where the Blues finally beat Queensland, and they backed it up with another win last year.
"It's a massive rivalry that we always have and coming to camp the girls are just focused on what we have to do as a Blues squad," Walton said.
"There's a lot of rivalry … even though you play with these girls for Jillaroos, when it comes to mate on mate, state on state it's massive. Just to have the name on top, State of Origin, it makes it so much more. It's a lot more classier for us.
"It's always physical, especially up the front in the forwards, you've got to grind it out. We're actually playing 60 minutes instead of the 80-minute game so it's going to be fast."
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