In 2014 Emilee Cherry was voted the world’s best women’s sevens player and next month she’ll be a key player in Australia’s pursuit of Olympic gold in Rio.
Just over four years ago, however, Cherry had never made a tackle in her life.
And she wasn’t alone. At the start of the last Olympic year, over half of the members in Australia’s 12-woman Olympic squad hadn’t even stepped onto a rugby field.
“That was challenging as a coach because you had an amazing array of skills, but other areas of weakness,” coach Tim Walsh said.
Four years on and the Australian women’s sevens team are ranked no.1 in the world and are a excellent gold medal chance in Rio.
On the surface, the relative inexperience of Australia’s team may have looked like a problem but it turned out to be a strength.
What the Australian women’s side lack in miles on the rugby clock they more than make up for in diverse and rich sporting backgrounds in other codes, which have been meltdown down and re-forged into a powerhouse sevens team.
The Aussie team are comprised of top female athletes drawn from many different fields, courts and tracks around the country.
Chloe Dalton played for the Sydney Flames in the WNBL, Ellia Green was a nationally ranked sprinter, Emma Tonegato played rugby league for Australia and several others played touch football for Australia, including Charlotte Caslick, Cherry, Alicia Quirk, Gemma Etheridge and Evania Pelite.
Everyone has come from different backgrounds and I think that’s why we are such a unique team,” said co-captain Shanon Parry.
“That’s what makes this team so special. Everyone has something unique about them but gelling that all together, that’s been the big thing for us.”
When Australia were looking at how best to qualify for the Olympics in 2011 and 2012, then HPU manager Ant Eddy began inviting players like Cherry to trial for rugby. Others came to the sport themselves, and talent ID camps were held around the country.
Green drove her cousin to try-out day in Melbourne in 2013, was spotted and invited to a camp in Canberra. After one blistering run in a trial she was picked for her Australian debut three months later.
The search for talent saw hundreds try out. Lauryn Eagle and Mon Gerard both had a crack at sevens but didn’t progress.
Teenage touch footballers like Caslick, already playing for their country, were spotted in Youth sevens tournaments and invited into to join established XVs stars like Parry and Sharni Williams in the Aussie squad.
It was a big melting pot of raw talent, says Walsh.
“We had all these wonderful athletes but almost completely different levels of skill,” Walsh said.
“But having all those different sports coming in, everyone still started at the same level pretty much in terms of experience. So the players came in and built it all themselves, which was crucial. It is theirs and they have grown with it.”
The Aussie sevens programs - men and women - centralised in Sydney in 2014 and big gains followed.
The fact many of the womens players had limited tackling experience even turned out to an advantage.