When Emilee Cherry received a letter in the mail inviting her to a camp at the Australian Institute for Sport she had no idea how much it would change her life, setting her on a pathway that would see her become an Olympian and winner of the first rugby sevens’ gold medal in Olympic history.
With the letter offering her a free trip there, after self-funding herself playing touch football, she had “no hesitation in jumping on board” and just a couple of months later she was in Dubai making her HSBC World Rugby Women’s Sevens Series for Australia.
“Never in a million years” did Cherry expect that trip to yield the success that it has, particularly so quickly, given the transition they made from “girls who came from a touch football background who don’t like to tackle or 15s girls or people from athletics” into “true rugby sevens players”.
Being thrown in the deep end together is something Cherry believes has been at the heart of Australia’s success, creating a legacy that she not only hopes will bring more success for the current squad but also for many years to come.
“The basis of it is probably that we all came in together knowing nothing,” she explained. “There was never a hierarchy of one is better than the other or you have to do this to be here. All of us put in the hard work and all of us were on the same level trying to make each other better.
Rugby sevens pioneers
“The essence of the last four years has been about us refining our skills and pushing each other to be the best we can be because we were the pioneers of rugby sevens. There were no other teams that went before us where we could say, ‘we want to play like them’.
“We were given the platform with (coach) Tim Walsh to create who we wanted to be and what we wanted to play like. That’s been an awesome experience that has taken time.
“There are some very exciting players coming through now. They have got a great pathway and a great foundation and they’ve got people to look up to and to ask questions and grow from there. We know they’re going to be ten-fold better players than us because of the experience they are getting at a younger age.”
Some of them will be on show at the HSBC Kitakyushu Sevens this weekend as Australia look to claim their first Cup title of the season, having lost two gold medal battles to New Zealand, in Dubai and Las Vegas and finished fourth on home soil in Sydney.
Turn the clock back 12 months and Australia went into round four with three titles, a maximum 60 points in the bag and just one defeat – a pool loss to England in Atlanta – to their names as the dominant force on the series.
But don’t think that Cherry and her Australian team-mates are anywhere near finished yet, especially not with a home Commonwealth Games next year as well as RWC Sevens in San Francisco and the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games beyond that.
Ambitions still to achieve
“We’ve had an up and down season so far and I don’t think we’ve really hit our potential,” admitted Cherry, now 24 years old and with 21 series tournaments to her name.
“From the high of the world series win and the Rio Olympics win, we kind of came back down to earth straight away. We went straight back to training and have been working hard ever since. We’ve kind of gone back to basics building up to the Comm Games and Tokyo 2020, so we are definitely building up from the bottom.
“It was a dream run (last year) and I don’t think anybody could have written a better story for us. Coming from different sports and different backgrounds four years ago and not really knowing what rugby sevens was … to have had this fairytale ending of an Olympic gold medal, it is kind of unbelievable.
“But we have definitely got further ambitions and as a team we are hungry for more success.
“We know we still probably haven’t reached our potential individually or as a team and I think that’s something we are really excited about. It is probably something we are going to work a lot harder for because all the other teams are definitely stepping it up on this series.
“We expected a huge jump (in standard) from teams going to Rio, but that’s been the case post-Rio too. We have seen players come through and the American side really step it up. I think this series has been the toughest by far. With all 12 teams, you know that there isn’t going to be any easy games.
A qualification surprise
“Our coach Tim Walsh likes to keep us grounded and we like to keep him grounded. I think as a team we know what we are capable of, and we have seen glimpses of that in training and on the field sometimes. We have got such an incredible group and hopefully we can defend that (Olympic) title in three years’ time.”
One key target for Australia this year, apart from trying to retain their series crown, is to secure their passage to RWC Sevens 2018 by finishing in the top four teams outside the already qualified quartet of New Zealand, Canada, USA and Spain.
By lying second overall, six points behind leaders New Zealand, Australia are currently leading this race with Fiji, Russia and France in the other qualification places.
“I think it came as a shock to some of the girls coming through that we hadn’t even qualified for the World Cup. I think that shows how much our team has grown in the last four years. Coming fifth in Russia was disappointing, but we have definitely come a long way since then.
“I don’t think we have reached our potential yet and we have a long way to go.”
That may be the case, but Cherry could reach a significant personal milestone this weekend in Kitakyushu – where Australia will face Brazil, Fijiana and Ireland in Pool B – as she needs only three tries to become the second player in women’s series history to reach 100 tries after New Zealand's Portia Woodman.
Team tries the best
“It would be definitely something special (to achieve that),” admitted Cherry. “I have no idea how many I am on. I know a few of the girls joked about it whilst we were in Las Vegas, but it’s not something I really think about too much.
“I’ve been around for a long time and I have scored some incredible tries but they all come off my team putting me in the right place at the right time. Some of the standout tries are those great team tries where everyone has touched the ball a few times and we’ve gone through a few phases or it’s come at a difficult point in the game.
“After a while they all just kind of turn into a blur. There’s probably two that stand out the most.
“The one in the Sao Paulo final against New Zealand a few years ago – it is one of Walshy’s favourites, he plays it all the time – is one where everyone in the team touches the ball at least once. Myself, Charlotte (Caslick) and Emma (Tonegato) touch it about two or three times and I score in the corner. The way the whole team contributed to that try was pretty special.
“More recently, I’d say the one against England in Las Vegas where Evania Pelite came across and then switched me under and then Chloe (Dalton) hit this awesome hard line and put me under the posts.”
But being the team player that she is, if it came down to a choice between that personal achievement and Australia claiming their first title of the season, the decision would be as easy to make as the one she made when that letter arrived in the mail.