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Rio 2016: Australian rugby sevens gold a return on investment

Emilee Cherry can laugh about it now, but she wondered if she had made a huge mistake when she chose to leave touch football and pursue a career in rugby sevens almost five years ago.

“I remember my first game, I cried after someone pushed me in the back,” Cherry said with a chuckle after she helped Australia beat New Zealand 24-17 to win a historic gold medal in women’s sevens in Rio.

First impressions are often lasting, but fortunately for Cherry and Australian rugby this was not the case.

Her role in the historic victory in Rio, which marked the Games debut of rugby sevens, and the 2015/16 world series triumph vindicated a bold but wise move used by the Australian Rugby Union (ARU) designed to deliver Olympic gold.

The ARU, whose decision-making has left a lot to be desired for well over a decade, made the right call in this instance to initiate talent identification camps for women’s rugby sevens in the years that followed the 2009 announcement of the sport’s admission to the Olympics.

The theory of ‘talent transfer’ had much to do with the reasoning, and because touch-football skills are a natural crossover for rugby sevens, athletes such as Cherry were identified.

In fact, Cherry is one of five national touch football representatives who made up the 12-member roster that featured in Australia’s Olympic success.

Charlotte Caslick, Alicia Quirk, Gemma Etheridge and Evania Pelite joined Cherry in the women’s sevens program and, despite some teething problems early in their transition to rugby’s abbreviated game, their perservance paid off.

Ellia Green
Ellia Green has established herself as a rugby sevens star after switching from track and field.

Other members of Australia’s squad, namely Emma Tonegato (rugby league), Chloe Dalton (basketball) and Ellia Green (track and field), also moved over from other sports and Cherry was just like her new team-mates – she wanted the chance to win Olympic gold.

“That was the reason I joined the program,” Cherry said.

“I came from a touch football background and they said there is an opportunity to play at the Olympics.

“And right from the start Alicia Quirk, Charlotte Caslick, I was friends with them already and we said ‘Yep, let’s go for it’. And right from the start we were gunning for that gold medal.”

In some respects, the ARU was taking a punt on attracting athletes from other sports because the defensive aspect of rugby sevens cannot be picked up overnight.

But the upside was the passing skills and instincts in attack that Cherry and others possessed. And this was on display when Australia topped the try-scoring standings in Rio with 28 five-pointers.

“That is something that we pride ourselves on,” said Cherry, who was the 2013/14 world sevens player of the year.

“We come from touch football backgrounds most of us so the attack is something that comes really easy to us.”

Tonegato, who scored Australia’s opening – but controversial – try in the final against New Zealand, was another who traded codes to play rugby sevens.

She played for the Jillaroos, Australia’s national women’s rugby league team, prior to making her rugby sevens debut in 2013.

Ellia Green
Emma Tonegato comes from a rugby league background and scored the opener in the Olympic final.

Tonegato, like Cherry, was enticed by the lure of Olympic glory and bought into the ARU’s vision for the sport despite some early reservations.

“I think we all had it in the back of our heads that was obviously why we made it a full-time program and everything like that,” she said.

“But to actually win the world series, that was a big ‘oh my God, we can do this’ kind of moment for us and to come out here with the tag of favourites and deliver is really big for us.”

Tonegato gave praise to Australia coach Tim Walsh, labelling the former Queensland Reds fly half as the ideal mentor to guide the women’s program in the build-up to the Rio Olympics.

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