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7 March, 2009 is a date that Cheryl Soon will never forget. Hardly surprisingly given it was the day she became the first captain to hold aloft the Women’s Rugby World Cup Sevens trophy after a dramatic defeat of New Zealand.
The memories are still as fresh as if it were only yesterday for Soon, who captained Australia in both sevens and 15s, as she recalls the yellow card for Rebecca Tavo that allowed New Zealand to draw level against a Wallaroos side that barely allowed them out of their half to that point.
Tries from Nicole Beck and Debby Hodgkinson had put Australia in command at 7he Sevens Stadium, but with 25 seconds to go until half-time Tavo was sent to the sin-bin by referee Gabriel Lee Wing Yi and New Zealand pounced.
First Justine Lavea went over from the resulting penalty to cut the deficit to 10-5 at the break and then from the restart it took just 17 seconds for Carla Hohepa, the tournament’s top try-scorer, to throw a dummy and race clear to tie the scores.
A fiercely contested and physical encounter continued without another score, meaning sudden death extra-time would be needed to determine the inaugural champions and it didn’t take long to do so in Australia’s favour.
Shelly Matcham had only come on with a minute of normal time left but her freshness proved the difference as with 36 seconds of extra-time gone, Bo de la Cruz found her on the wing with a miss-pass.
Hohepa went too high and New Zealand captain Hannah Porter couldn’t stop her, Matcham capitalising on not being held to get up again and stretch over the line. A few seconds of consultation with her assistant and Lee blew the final whistle, sparking Australia’s celebrations.
VIDEO: RELIVE THE RWC SEVENS 2009 FINAL
“That was really tough because I think we had three sin-bins in the tournament and when we had a sin-bin against New Zealand that was when they scored their two tries because we were up quite comfortably and then they got back into the game after we had a player down,” recalled Soon.
“Just little things like that let us down but I think it was great discipline and great belief that we could bounce back and just believe we could do it and honestly that was all it boiled down to, we just kind of had this intent, like a look in each other’s eyes that we’ve got this, and we have just got to go out there and deliver it.
“To beat them in the final was just incredible. I don’t think we were expected to win, to be honest I don’t think we were expected to get as far as we did and so winning the actual tournament was just an unbelievable feeling, it really was to win the first one.
“We only had two camps before we went to the World Cup and one we funded ourselves. This was our time we needed together and we just felt we needed more than one camp before flying out. Things like that just made it so much sweeter.
“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 knowing where it is today I have a huge smile on my face.”
Australia had suffered their first sevens defeat against France on day one, pitting them against favourites England – coached by Simon Amor – in the quarter-finals, a scenario which began to put seeds of doubt in the minds of Soon and her team-mates.
“I think when we beat England in the quarter-final, that was the defining moment for us because we knew it was going to be really tough,” explained Soon, now a mother of two and living in San Francisco.
“We had lost against France which set us up with the quarter-final against England so for us we were like ‘we don’t know if we can do it’ and were really nervous.
“Our coach Jason (Stanton) could tell and just took us for a walk and had a chat with us. He told us ‘don’t be nervous, you’ve got this, we’ve studied them, we know what their game plan is.’
“That was the good thing about Jason, he analysed a lot of the teams and we adapted our style of play. If they switched it up we knew what to do too so he prepped us for every single game. The plan was never the same, it would just depend on the opponent.
“We beat them in a really close game, 17-10, and after beating them we were like ‘ok, we know we can do this’ and that set us up for a semi with South Africa. We just took one game at a time and every game we treated it like it was the grand final and left everything out there.
“We knew that every single player out there was accountable, there is no hiding on a sevens pitch, so I think everyone really busted their gut to do their job which made it a lot easier on everyone else. I think everyone stepped up and owned their role and responsibility and that made a huge difference.”
In the final part, and to coincide with International Women's Day on Tuesday, Cheryl Soon looks at another historic occasion with which her name will always be synonomous, securing a place for rugby sevens on the Olympic programme and her excitement ahead of Rio 2016.