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Rugby sevens team built on success

9 August 2016

RUGBY SEVENS: It was a team put together by rugby talent identifiers determined to give Australia dominance on the world women’s rugby scene.

They could not have picked a bigger stage to reap the rewards than the Olympic Games.

The Deodoro Stadium in Rio may be a fully temporarily-scaffolded arena, but there was nothing less than rock-solid about what the Tim Walsh-coached Aussie side have created since the Australian Rugby Union decided it wanted to take the women’s modified game to gold medal status when the sevens competition was announced as an Olympic sport.

Those ambitions culminated with a dominant 24-17 win against the Kiwis. The victory was followed by Wimbledon-style scenes as the girls leapt over barriers into the stands to embrace family and friends who had travelled halfway around the world to see history being made – the first Olympic rugby sevens gold medallists and Australia’s first rugby gold medal glory since the men saluted in 1908.

The program of finding suitable athletes and converting them to a rugby super-squad started around 2012.

Trials were held, scouts were sent out to touch football, 15-a-side rugby competitions and further afield. They put them on full-time contracts, honed specialist skills and went for gold.

It threw up a combination that tonight thrilled a vocal and appreciative crowd that cheered wildly at their pace, skills and physical commitment in defence against a New Zealand side who, like their All Blacks counterparts, had dominated sevens for too long.

That was until the 12-woman squad in Rio was strategically created and took the mantle of undisputed world’s best – being unbeaten against the Kiwis since February 2015.

In the squad that made it to Rio there is one mother, Nicole Beck, who takes her three-year-old daughter Sophie to training at the squad’s base at Narrabeen in Sydney at least once a week so that she can balance parenting and playing.

Beck is one of five former Australian touch football reps who have won on the world stage, along with sharp-stepping Charlotte Caslick, who was brilliant in the final, Emilee Cherry, Evania Pelite and Alicia Quirk.

Chloe Dalton used to sink baskets with pin-point accuracy with the Sydney Flames, dreaming of going to the Olympic Games as a basketballer. Gold in rugby is more than a consolation.

Emma Tonegato, previously a touch footballer, played rugby league well enough to represent Australia in the 2013 World Cup side that ended the Kiwis’ two-decade domination of the World Championships. Now she has emulated that in the sister sport.

The league title was seen as the Holy Grail against the bruising Kiwi side that had been untouchable, but this moment in Brazil surpassed it. This is the Olympic Games.

“I hadn’t been playing rugby league very long when we won the World Cup and probably didn’t understand at the time how big that was [beating the Kiwis],” Tonegato said.

“Looking back on it now, it’s definitely a highlight of my life, getting that back for Australia, and now to do this too is unbelievable.

“I can’t really comprehend it at the moment, to take it all in just now, but it’s a special moment to do this with these girls.”

Co-captain Sharni Williams, a former hockey star for the ACT Strikers, comes from Batlow, famous for its apples but maybe now for striking gold.

Ellia Green was born in Fiji, but was adopted by her Polish mother and English father and raised in Melbourne. She wanted to be a sprinter when growing up and was quick enough to represent Australia at the 2009 World School Games in Qatar. Her coach felt she was good enough to be an Olympic sprinter.

She was recruited from a talent camp in Melbourne, which she attended with cousin Meme Yakapo, and became the top try-scorer in this year’s World Series that included many games over several months in tournaments in Dubai, Sao Paulo (Brazil), Atlanta (USA), Langford (Canada) and Clermont-Ferrand (France).

“This is just an amazing feeling,” Green beamed.

“We wear our heart on our sleeve and we play for our country and our families and our friends and everyone back home.

“This means a lot. I was a young girl born in Fiji and raised in Australia. I hope this inspires Islander girls around the world, Australians and young women to play rugby and do whatever they want.

“There are no limitations for women in sport.”

Her mother Yolanta, who has been battling cancer, was in the stands, making it a moment to cherish even more.

“We weren’t sure if she could make the trip, to see her in the crowd and have tears in her eyes watching was indescribable,” Green said.

“She means the world to me; she was the one who told me to give rugby a go, otherwise I’d still be doing athletics.

“Now I feel very proud to have a gold medal around my neck and to have made history in rugby and Australian sport.”

Green now can’t wait to watch the 100m and 200m and perhaps meet Usain Bolt in the Olympic Village as, if predictions come true, fellow Olympic gold medallists.

Amy Turner, the oldest member of the squad at 32 who was driving trucks around the mines in Mt Isa before she had the call to become a full-time sevens exponent, would have felt for her vanquished opponents more than others.

Born in New Zealand, she represented the Maori Sevens and the New Zealand Touch Football Team before she moved to Brisbane when she was 20.

She turned to league and represented Queensland but it offered nothing like what she is celebrating just now.

Coach Tim Walsh, a former Queensland Reds fly-half and Australian men’s seven representative, has an almighty coaching record with this squad. He now has won 86 (plus a draw) out of 101 games with the national sevens side.

It’s no wonder he has been re-signed until the end of 2018.

Many Australian team members were at the stadium to cheer on the rugby girls including tennis players Daria Gavrilova, Sam Groth, taekwondo’s Hayder Shkara, basketballers Damian Martin and Brock Motum and slalom paddler Lucien Delfour, while hundreds of others were watching on a big screen in the athletes’ village.

The Australians were motivated by comments by Kiwi coach Sean Horan, who claimed they “don’t like the physical side”.

They proved otherwise – big time.

“We wanted to walk off that field with no regrets, we knew if we performed we were going to win,” Walsh said.

“Because they were touch players and wear ribbons and pig tails and sing songs doesn’t mean they are not world class rugby players and ruthless in defence and I think they showed that to everybody.

“I hope this showed a real sustainable future for rugby sevens at the Olympics. That was a catalyst for all these teams going professional and making new role models and new leaders in women’s sport.”

They have indeed. All of Australia would agree with that.

Neil Cadigan

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