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Williams setting new standards

Australian women's 7s captain Sharni Williams talks about her rise to the top.

Article thanks to The Rugby Union Players' Association - follow them on Twitter HERE

Growing up in the small country town of Batlow, more famous for its apples than its athletes, Sharni Williams may never have imagined the corners of the globe she would travel to. Now the Captain of the Australian Women’s Sevens team, she looks to continue on her journey towards capturing gold at the Rio Olympics in 2016.

Rugby was not the first sporting love of Sharni, who long before she pulled on the studs showed promise as an elite junior Hockey star, as identified by the NSW Institute of Sport. It was while representing the ACT Strikers on the National stage in 2008 that she first accepted the invitation of a colleague to play Rugby. Hockey’s loss would be Australian Rugby’s gain.

“I played about seven games and then made the ACT XV team. We had a tournament up in Queensland and from that tournament I ended up getting picked in the Wallaroos. It was a pretty quick rise to the top”.

At only 20 years of age, Sharni found herself representing her country, despite still learning the game of Rugby itself. It’s a similar position that a lot of current Sevens squad members find themselves in, and one that the new Captain takes pride in providing guidance around.

“I can relate to them and I try to give them some help as well. Sometimes they look at me and think ‘you’ve always played Rugby’ and I go, ‘well actually I haven’t’. I played seven games and then debuted for Australia.”

Despite being on the fringes of Australia’s World Cup winning Sevens side in 2009, Sharni did make her National Sevens debut until 2011, a year after being named the Women’s Rugby Player of the Year for her efforts with the Wallaroos.

Her reign as captain of the Sevens team began shortly before the 2013 Sevens World Cup held in June. In the five months following their fifth place finish at the Moscow tournament there has been considerable change for the whole Women’s Sevens team.

Former Queensland Reds and Men’s Sevens star Tim Walsh, now calls the shots as head coach, while of the twelve Women taken to Moscow, only six squad members from the World Cup featured at Dubai Sevens in November. As of January, all contracted members of the squad have now also relocated to a centralised training base at the Sydney Academy of Sport in Narrabeen, Sydney.

The vast changes have provided the opportunity for Sharni, as the leader, to lay the benchmarks for a new team culture, designed to honour the right to play for Australia.

During Dubai Sevens, their inspirational come from behind victory against New Zealand was the first public unveiling of the new Australian Women’s Sevens team.

“Dubai was the start of a new culture that we’ve been building over the past year with the girls. Having all these new girls coming in who are so excited and keen to represent their country, that’s something we were missing.

“We have a couple of policies like the jersey doesn’t go on the ground; it sits up high where you can see it. We all help carry the gear; if someone is down and out we always talk to them and let them know that support is there if they need it.

“We aren’t just playing Rugby for ourselves, but for our teammates. We’re beginning to see that now. Being all together, even just for a month, girls are getting stronger, getting fitter, and understanding the game more.

“When you see that it’s just like ‘wow, imagine where we can be in two months’ time’. If you put in the hard yards you get the results.”

The Women’s Sevens head to the second leg of the 2013/14 IRB Sevens World Series in Atlanta with newfound confidence following their victory in the Cup Final in Dubai. Despite the squad’s current World number one ranking, Sharni believes there is still been plenty to improve upon to give themselves the best chance of defending their title.

“The girls are pretty confident but I wouldn’t say overly confident. We’re still grounded and looking at ways we can improve.

“I mean yes we won Dubai, but we look at the stats and it wasn’t really the best tournament we’ve had. Although we were still able to win it, which was exciting, there are definitely areas to improve on.”

Being centralised in Sydney has assisted the Women’s preparation for the tournament, laying the perfect platform for the squad to concentrate on achieving peak physical fitness, perfecting communication and combinations while significantly reducing any logistics issues.

The squad has even utilised it’s time together to work on wet weather tactics, conscious that they’ll be playing in a city only weeks removed from its first recorded snow falls in 10 years.

On a personal level, the centralisation has brought other difficulties for work and study commitments.

For Sharni, her relocation from Brisbane to Sydney has meant she is currently no longer working as a mechanic for the first time since 2009.

Growing up as the daughter of a truck driver and bush mechanic, Sharni spent many hours of her youth around vehicles, lending a hand where she could. When she was looking for a trade to learn, studying to become a mechanic stood out as an obvious choice.

“I had given up on retail work and I just had no direction. I was like I need to actually get something behind me because Hockey or Rugby isn’t going to be around forever, so I thought I’d get in to a trade. I decided to be a mechanic because I loved cars and dad was pushing me that way.”

Sharni began studying to be a mechanic with the support of Toyota in 2009. Through the extraordinary commitments of being an athlete representing her country on the International stage, she says she is extremely grateful to have found an employer who was supportive of her sporting endeavors.

“Toyota has been amazing. With all my Rugby and travel, and everything I put them through; it took me four years to be fully qualified and during it all they let me go away and play Rugby and kept paying me to work. I then moved up to Brisbane and I picked up another mechanics job at Toyota as well, and they were very supportive.”

Balancing the commitments of work, Rugby and a personal life isn’t always an easy feat. As a star Hockey junior, Sharni was once asked to relocate from Canberra to Sydney, but after a brief stint opted to return to the comforts of home.

Years later, and as the leader of a young squad, she’s confident that confronting the difficulties of moving interstate only adds strength to her character.

“The fact that I’ve got a partner that follows me round everywhere makes moving pretty hard. The fact that she has to find a new job wherever we move is tough, so it was a massive decision.

“At that point (when I first moved for Rugby), Chris Lane was the coach and I knew he had a lot of faith in me. I wanted to stay in Canberra, but you know he said ‘I can’t have you there; I need you to give it everything’.

“At the end of the day I decided that it was going to make me a better person and a better player, its taking me out of a comfort zone and I’m going to have to adapt.”

From Canberra to Sydney, via Brisbane, is a huge move for a sporting career, but this travel pales in comparison to the miles Sharni has clocked flying the world as a part of the IRB World Series Sevens circuit. For the new Captain, knowing the reward which sits at the end of the journey is enough to look ahead to the future with fondness, despite the sacrifices it may hold.

“The future holds a lot of pressure, there is a lot on the line. So all those niggling injuries and things that I have; the days that you don’t want to go and train, or the times you want to gorge on desserts and chocolates or go out and have a big night with your friends, those are the times that you think to yourself ‘I’ve got something to aim for; I can go to the Olympics’.

“That doesn’t come round very often, not many people can say those things, so I just think back to my teammates. Yeah there is a lot of pressure and you have to make sacrifices and choices but they enable you to get to the Olympics.

“One thing could go wrong and it could be all over but you know your risking it for the right reasons.”