Emilee Cherry’s return to the rugby field could not have gone much better.
In Australia’s opening match against Brazil at the HSBC New Zealand Sevens last weekend, Cherry’s first two touches of the ball both resulted in a try.
That brace set up a 24-14 victory in Hamilton and although Australia ultimately failed to end their long wait for a Cup success, the 27-year-old was thankful to be back out on the pitch with her mates.
Cherry’s jersey for her 30th series event, and first since giving birth to daughter Alice just seven months ago, had been presented by Dom du Toit following an emotional embrace with Alicia Lucas.
“The last three months [were] really focused on getting my body ready to be back out with the girls,” Cherry told World Rugby ahead of the HSBC Sydney Sevens at Bankwest Stadium.
“I can vividly remember now running out for that first time and just thinking how privileged I am and how special [it is] to be able to pull on that Australian jersey again and represent my country.
“And, I guess, it also makes it so special to be back in alongside some of my best friends and that’s so special, and that was a huge motivation for me seeing them out there playing and having fun and just wanting to get back out there with them.”
Cherry’s determination to get back on the rugby pitch ahead of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games meant that she continued to train even while heavily pregnant.
“I was in the gym the whole way up,” she added. “I trained my whole pregnancy and was able to train, which I guess, for me, mentally was great but physically as well it also helped.”
Even in the immediate aftermath of Alice’s birth, Cherry says she was able to do certain exercises, such as glute activations, and just three months after the World Rugby Women's Sevens Player of the Year 2014 started running.
But while she had the Sydney Sevens in the back of her mind as a potential target she did not expect to feature in Hamilton or at her hometown event – not least because she spent much of the next three months running alone.
“I did so many laps around the field by myself, and it got a bit mundane at the start but I was lucky also that we had some key players, and some of my good friends, in rehab as well coming back so they kept me well entertained and not too crazy,” Cherry explained.
“The pelvis changing position and losing strength through all your core is, you know, two of the biggest things for the change of direction so that was really difficult.
“I guess that was difficult at the start because I knew I could run all day and my speed was all right, it wasn’t great but it was all right. But I couldn’t change direction and I knew how fundamental that was in rugby sevens.
“So, that was a little bit of a worry for me but probably I had two-and-a-half months of straight-line running and we slowly drip-fed the change of direction, and then once we got the agility back we then could kind of put contact in.
“I went through that fine in two weeks and then I kind of found myself playing in Hamilton straight after. So it was quite quick after we got that change of direction back.”
Cherry says her partner, Daniel has been “amazing” looking after their daughter in order to enable her to pursue her dream of getting back fit and into the Australia squad.
The 27-year-old is hopeful that Daniel and Alice will be at Bankwest Stadium to watch her and her team-mates this weekend but admits “anything can happen with a child”.
Building towards Tokyo
On the pitch, Australia have not won a series event since Sydney two years ago and Cherry is determined to help the Olympic champions find the winning formula once again on home soil.
“It’s frustrating if you play and don’t win, it’s frustrating when you watch and the girls don’t win,” she said.
“I guess we’ve seen inconsistency from day one to day two and we just haven’t quite been able to hit that consistency of building from day one and not peaking on day one.”
Victory in Sydney would be a welcome fillip for the squad six months out from Tokyo 2020 and the defence of the gold medal that Australia won four years ago when sevens made its Olympic debut in Rio.
Cherry scored two tries in the semi-final defeat of Canada in Rio and the 27-year-old believes the squad is building nicely ahead of the Games.
“It’s going to be really exciting and I guess our eyes have been on it the last nearly 18 months,” she said.
“All our training’s been aimed to peak in Tokyo and it’s going to be – if I am there – incredibly special. I think we’ve got a really good base of experienced players and a few young girls coming up as well for spots.”
If Cherry can help to convince more young women that childbirth does not equal retirement along the way, then all the better.
“I haven’t really seen myself as such as a role model but I try to model the best behaviour I can and I guess in an area that’s lacking research and lacking knowledge,” Cherry added.
“So anything I can do to promote how supportive Rugby Australia was with their pregnancy policy or how incredible our S&C and medical team were to get my body back physically right to play seven months post-birth [I will].
“That is, I guess, going to be one of my legacies now to help those who come after me because there’s been girls that have come before me that have done it as well but I guess we did it in a quick turnaround in comparison to most.”