Sharni Williams was probably one of those annoying kids everyone can remember being at their school – the one who can turn their hand to pretty much anything.
The 28-year-old was a rising hockey star for the Canberra Strikers of the Australian Hockey League before deciding she wanted to try rugby, aged 20.
She instantly adapted and soon earned a first Wallaroos cap. She won the ACT Rugby Rookie of the Year in 2008 and is now an integeral part of the Brumbies and Australia women’s teams. She was co-captain as the sevens team won Olympic gold in Rio in the summer.
Williams is even a qualified mechanic. She’s in Dubai this week as Australia fine-tune their preparations ahead of the Dubai Rugby Sevens, and she spoke with Sport360.
How is the team looking coming into the HSBC World Rugby Women’s Sevens Series season opener in Dubai?
It’s always different. After the Olympics and four years of preparations, a lot of teams have some fresh faces and new talent, so it’s pretty unpredictable this first round. You have to just focus on your own team rather than analyse other teams. I still think we’ve got an amazing team. We’ve got girls who have won a gold medal and some fresh faces as well.
Describe what it felt like to become the first rugby sevens Olympic champions?
It’s hard. It’s such an overwhelming feeling. Coming off the plane into Sydney from Rio, it was indescribable. And now seeing how much the game has grown, young girls aged eight coming up to you and saying they want to play rugby, it’s changed the whole face of women’s rugby in Australia but also around the world.
The UAE Rugby Federation are trying hard to develop girls rugby here in the Emirates. Even in a rugby-mad country like Australia, have you noticed a change since Rio?
It’s the fastest growing women’s sport in the world and we’re actually seeing the rise in popularity off the back of the Olympics, and the pathway for young girls is starting to be developed. You won’t lose them to other sport. They can continue with rugby instead of going off to different sports. It’s growing in Australia and throughout the world so it’s really exciting times for our sport.
Winning in Dubai last year, the overall Women’s Sevens Series and then the Olympics, was there a lot of pressure?
We have high expectations of each other as a team. When you set goals and have a coach like Tim Walsh who trusts and believes in you, when you achieve them it means so much more. Being a part of the World Series for four years and then winning it has been a goal for a long time. To win in Olympic year and then go in as number one with pressure, and people were asking do we feel it. The only pressure is what you put on yourselves.
After such a successful season, is there a danger of complacency creeping in?
This is the next step, thinking about that complacency. It’s not something we want. We had a surprise from Tim in training one day. We actually went skydiving. “Our heads are in the clouds” he was saying, so we need to be grounded and that was his way of doing that, putting us back on the ground. We’re young athletes who’d never experienced a gold medal before. While we’re in the moment we think about it but it’s a new season, and now we need to stay grounded. The game’s evolving and we need to evolve with it and set the standard. We can’t just think because of last year it will be the same again. It’s a new process, new teams.
You have a big target on your backs now. Do you need to start with a win in Dubai?
As an athlete you look forward to the next tournament but also the big picture. Winning Dubai would be amazing but it’s just the first process. We want to take another World Series and a lot of things go into it, but Dubai is what we’re looking at right now. We have a few faces who haven’t been part of our team or success so we’ll take them under our wing.
You’re obviously here on business, but do you get to enjoy Dubai too?
It’s been pretty awesome this time. We went up the Burj Khalifa so it’s been cool getting out and about. We came a day earlier to be able to do that, we went to a water park too so that was awesome. You’re co-captain of the team with Shannon Parry.
Do you feel a bit more responsibility or do you relish it?
That’s the sort of captain I am. I lead by example but don’t overthink things. We’ve got an amazing team, girls I’ve seen grow up, and now they’ve got their own leadership skills so I don’t always have to be the voice. Each person is a leader. They can speak up too. It’s not just me, it’s the whole team and that’s how we’re successful, everyone has a role.
It was actually hockey that drew me to rugby. I’d made it to the top there, I was part of the Strikers’ AHL League team and Hockeyroos (Australia national women’s hockey team) was on my radar, but I’d stopped enjoying hockey and I wanted to have fun. When I’m having fun I play my best sport so I got asked to play 15-a-side rugby and that’s where I started. I played four or five matches and made the Australian team, so it was a pretty quick transition, as it has been for a lot of girls in sevens from different sports. I hadn’t played much rugby, just touch and league, but never union. I first started playing at 20 so to see young girls now playing at six is really cool.
To be a role model is pretty amazing. Any advice for young girls wanting to take up the game?
Set and kick goals. Have fun, because if you’re not having fun you’re not going to play your best. Play without fear, don’t be afraid to make mistakes because you learn from them, and don’t be afraid to lose because your losses are what make you a better player and person.
The second and third highest capped rugby union players of all time were joined by Olympic gold medal winning coach Ben Ryan, with the special guests of HSBC revealing the impact of the Olympic Games on rugby sevens.
The trio were commenting on the sand dunes of Al Maha Desert Resort, on the opening morning of the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series, three months after the sport’s wonderful debut in Rio, which saw Fiji clinch its first-ever Olympic gold medal. The appeal of Rio has helped propel the sport onto a global stage and few would now doubt the potential of sevens to reach the same global level as XVs, or even supersede it.
When asked about the development of sevens following the Olympic Games O’Driscoll said: “The Olympic Games in Rio this year has changed the sport of rugby sevens forever. What was once a game that was played in the shadow of XVs, as a side thought, is now played out in front of a worldwide audience with world-class players.”
O’Driscoll’s comments sit alongside research showing that Rio 2016 helped the sport reach nearly 17 million new fans. World Rugby’s social media fan base grew by 670,000 during 2016 and the upcoming Sevens series will be broadcast to more than 100 countries and territories around the world.
According to Gregan this is an upward trend that shows no sign of slowing down: “We’re in the middle of a rugby revolution, a period of unbelievable growth for the game of sevens. This is an exciting, fast-paced sport that can be played anywhere, anytime and the Olympics has had a tremendous impact on propelling the game further into the public eye.”
Despite the surge in public interest, rugby sevens still faces challenges if it is to seize the opportunity of the Olympics. For Ben Ryan, that challenge starts with the grassroots.
“For me, capitalizing on the Olympic effect starts with the youngsters. We need to continue working from the ground up so that kids in the schools get the opportunity to play this special game and develop within it.”
The Dubai Rugby Sevens, the first leg of the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series, takes place from Thursday 1st December to Saturday 3rd December.
Over 100,000 sports fans are expected to walk through the gates at the Sevens Stadium across the three days of world class competition. Follow the conversation @HSBC_Sport on twitter and HSBC Sport on Facebook
Mike McFarlane’s men beat Doha 27-5 in the Trophy final in 2014. They fell behind against Al Ain Amblers 12 months ago but recovered to ease to a 36-14 victory to retain their title. Now they’ll be desperate to make it a hat-trick, although their opponents are just as obsessed with stopping them.
Dubai Hurricanes will come up against Quins in the group stage alongside Doha in what captain Dave Knight has labelled the ‘group of death’.
“If you want to win these types of tournaments you’ve got to beat the best,” he said. “We were given a bit of a lesson at Eden Park but we were missing a few players so we’re positive that we’ve got a better chance this time round.
“It will be tough with Quins, (Jebel Ali) Dragons and (Dubai) Exiles’ Fijians but sevens sometimes comes down to a bounce of the ball.”
It’s been a miserable 2016/17 season so far for Al Ain who, devoid of their star names, were forced to withdraw from the West Asia Premiership and UAE Premiership. However, they won the Plate at Eden Park and have always been a handful in the shortened format, and coach Niekie van Blerk is expecting them to ruffle a few feathers.
“I think we will be very competitive,” said the South African. “Our seven starters are all good players and last week at Eden Park 7s saw us winning the Plate. We should have done better and will be ready for Dubai.”
Having won everything but the Sevens last season, 2016/17 has been a sub-par one for Exiles. Jacques Benade’s men did reach the Eden Park final, where they were beaten by Quins, but they have been hit by a spate of injuries.
Benade said: “Preparations were very good until Matt Richards and Matt Mills both pulled hamstrings. We will be able to clear Jerry (Kilicanasau) hopefully but he is doubtful. We are confident we still can do well and with sevens anything can happen.”
One local side who have not particularly shone at sevens are Abu Dhabi Saracens, although its unpredictable nature excites coach Winston Cowie.
“Sevens can turn on the flip of a coin – we will take things one game at a time, try and keep possession, and go from there,” he said.
The last word goes to the reigning champions and coach McFarlane, who is relishing a fight.
“The calibre of sevens has increased tremendously and as always we love a challenge,” he said. “The boys have prepared really well so we are looking forward to it.”