The path Australia’s women followed to become gold medallists at Rio 2016 began more than eight years before, at a time when sevens was not yet an Olympic sport.
At the end of July, 2008, a squad of Australian players, coached by the late Shawn Mackay and captained by Cheryl Soon (née McAfee), travelled to Samoa to compete in the Oceania Women’s Sevens Championship.
Their target was qualification for the first women’s Rugby World Cup Sevens tournament, but having made the final the team sprung a surprise and beat New Zealand.
Victory against their rivals from across the Tasman Sea gave Australia confidence and when the teams met again, in the RWC Sevens 2009 final eight months later, it was Soon and Co who triumphed.
Shortly after Australia’s momentous victory in Dubai, Soon was invited to form part of the team who put forward the case for rugby sevens’ Olympic inclusion to the International Olympic Committee (IOC). Her passionate speech in Copenhagen played a pivotal role in the bid’s success.
Soon retired from playing long before Rio 2016, but the success she was a part of helped convince Rugby Australia to invest in sevens ahead of the game’s Olympic debut.
The union cast its net far and wide for talented athletes, bringing in players from touch, track and field and elsewhere as it professionalised the national women’s sevens set-up.
“It is incredible to see where it is now. It makes me just have this overwhelming feeling of pure satisfaction,” Soon told World Rugby in 2016.
“I walked away from that game and Australian rugby with this sense of satisfaction and pride and [to] know where it is today I have a huge smile on my face.”
Confidence, therefore, was high as the team arrived in Brazil to begin its Pool A campaign alongside Colombia, Fiji and the USA.
Australia 53-0 Colombia
The World Series champions made a fast start at the Deodoro Stadium, scoring first-half tries through Sharni Williams, Charlotte Caslick (twice), Emma Tonegato and Shannon Parry to build a 27-0 lead.
Caslick completed her hat-trick in the second period, while Amy Turner crossed once and Nicole Beck, a veteran of the RWC Sevens 2009 triumph, did so twice.
Australia 36-0 Fiji
Ellia Green had been rested against Colombia, but made her entrance with Australia leading 19-0 against Fiji in their second match of the opening day. Green duly scored her first Olympic try midway through the second half.
Fiji battled hard but struggled to break down the obdurate Australian defence, and the World Series holders confirmed their status as gold-medal favourites, completing a six-try 36-0 win to end the day without conceding a single point.
Australia 12-12 USA
It looked as though Australia had weathered the American storm when Tonegato scored the opening try, her fourth of the Games, as she pounced on a Victoria Folayan fumble and then had a second chalked off for a forward pass.
However, following more than half an hour without conceding, JJ Javelet became the first player to breach the Australian defence at the Games, scoring two tries in as many minutes. Australia trailed by seven points with time running out, but Tonegato stretched to score in the final play and Chloe Dalton’s conversion secured the draw and ensured her side topped Pool A.
Australia 24-0 Spain
Australia started the quarter-final camped inside opposition territory, and it wasn’t until they had opened a 12-0 lead, thanks to tries from Tonegato and Caslick, that Spain made it out of their half.
However, the Spanish started the second period on the front foot and thought they had scored when Patricia Garcia kicked through for Bárbara Plà to chase. Referee Jessica Beard judged that Plà had lost the ball forward, though, and Caslick and Green put the seal on an Australian victory.
Australia 17-5 Canada
Tonegato had been Australia’s match-winner up until this point, but she turned provider in the semi-final, supplying two scoring passes to Emilee Cherry as the women in green and gold seized control of a keenly contested opening seven minutes.
Canada began the second period camped inside the Australian half, but when the next score came it was a decisive one for Walsh’s side. Dalton cantered over in the left corner to give Australia a 17-0 lead and render Charity Williams’ late try nothing more than a consolation.
Australia 24-17 New Zealand
Waiting for Australia in the final were their familiar foes from across the Tasman Sea, New Zealand. But, if the players were nervous ahead of the first ever Olympic sevens gold medal match, they didn’t show it.
The squad returned to a darkened changing room following their warm-up, with the team’s ‘Rio candle’, which had accompanied their journey for more than a year, glowing brightly in the middle.
Soon the room reverberated to the sound of James Bay’s ‘Hold Back The River’. “Just looking around the room, seeing their faces and their emotions, they were ready,” Walsh told World Rugby in 2018. “They weren’t going to lose.”
It was, though, Kayla McAlister and the Black Ferns Sevens who struck first having kept Australia pinned inside their own half for the opening five minutes.
Australia responded through Tonegato before Portia Woodman was sent to the sin bin. Evania Pelite scored seconds later, and Green and Caslick crossed in the second period to give their side a 24-5 lead.
New Zealand hit back through McAlister and Woodman in the closing stages, but were unable to reel in the Australians, who celebrated becoming the first ever Olympic sevens champions in style!