Seven years ago this weekend, Cheryl Soon led Australia's women to a piece of history as the first Rugby World Cup Sevens champions after they dramatically beat New Zealand 15-10 in sudden-death extra-time in Dubai.
Seven months later Soon, now a mother of two and living in San Francisco, was part of the bid team presenting to the International Olympic Committee in Copenhagen and securing rugby sevens’ place on the Olympic Games programme.
"I am so glad that I got to make history twice I guess, which is pretty special and memories I will keep with me forever."
World Rugby caught up with the former Wallaroos captain to look back on that historic tournament in Dubai and find out what she makes of the game today as the world’s best women’s sevens players get ready to go for gold on the Olympic stage in August.
“That was a very special time, winning the inaugural sevens was just amazing,” admitted Soon. “It was something we didn’t think we could do just because of the lack of preparation time and funding that we had.
“It was really tough, we definitely had to jump some hurdles to get where we got to but we overcame those hurdles and bagged the big one. It was definitely a very special time and a pretty amazing feeling.
“Then to get selected to represent rugby and present to the IOC was another great opportunity for me and I am so glad that I got to make history twice I guess, which is pretty special and memories I will keep with me forever.
“That is what rugby is all about, the travelling and making lifelong friends all around the world and it is definitely an awesome sport. I am just very grateful for the opportunities that rugby has given me.”
Self-belief and confidence
Soon certainly had no second thoughts when the opportunity to play sevens for Australia came about, but before they could think about RWC Sevens they had to first negotiate the Oceania regional qualifier and that meant coming up against New Zealand, the dominant force in women’s rugby for more than a decade.
“The first time I actually thought we were in with a chance was when we went to the Oceania qualifier in Samoa and we beat New Zealand in the round game and then again in the final and we were like ‘wow, we can actually do this!’
“That was the first time we actually got to taste what it was like to win and to beat New Zealand, who at the time were the best, so we started to believe in ourselves and I think that came from our coach Shawn Mackay, he instilled a lot of confidence and just self-belief in our team.”
Mackay would not coach Australia at RWC Sevens, that role was filled by Jason Stanton, and he was tragically killed just a month later after an accident in South Africa while on tour there with the ACT Brumbies. His legacy, though, lives on with the country’s women’s sevens player of the year award bearing his name.
“He is a legend, he was a great guy who taught us a lot and he actually made us think don’t be intimidated. Obviously you respect your opponents but don’t be intimidated by them and I think we definitely were by New Zealand because of all their achievements and they were a hard team to beat.
“When he came on board he just taught us to be confident in ourselves and just not to be intimidated by them, just to do your best and that is all you can ask for. That was nice that he brought that into the team because we’d never had that before.
“He is a huge part of our success, as well as Jason Stanton who took us to the World Cup.”
Past, present and future
Soon and her team-mates, though, weren't just playing for themselves in Dubai, they were also thinking about those to wear the jersey in the years to come.
“We had this thing, if we win this it is going to change rugby in Australia. That was what we were told and so that was one thing we were really vying for because we knew if we were to win it was a great opportunity not for any of us, but for the younger girls and the future of Australian rugby.
“It is incredible to see where it is now. It makes me just have this overwhelming feeling of pure satisfaction. I walked away from that game and Australian rugby with this sense of satisfaction and pride and know where it is today I have a huge smile on my face.”
One of Soon's team-mates that day was Nicole Beck (pictured above on left), then a 20-year-old with a "carefree attitude" but who seven years on is part of the Australian team currently sitting top of the HSBC World Rugby Women's Sevens Series standings after back-to-back wins in Dubai and Sao Paulo and could complete a unique double of first RWC Sevens winner and Olympic gold medallist too.
“That would be pretty special for her and she has come a long way,” recalled Soon. “Back in the day she was the youngest girl in our team and she got the nickname of 'Pup' from Shawn Mackay because she was the youngest and she kind of had this carefree attitude.
“The rest of us were busting our butt because we had to but she was that person that didn't have to try very hard, which is really annoying! I said to her that you know when you're older, you're going to have to train like we trained.
“She is a talented and gifted athlete and I would be so proud of her if she gets into the Olympic team and if they win gold that would be even more special for her.”
In part two on Monday, Cheryl Soon looks back on the RWC Sevens 2009 final itself and what was the key to Australia’s success in Dubai.