Ahead of the IRB Women's Sevens Challenge Cup in London, Ian Gilbert meets one of Australia's key players.
When Australia’s Bo de la Cruz pulls on the green shirt for the IRB Women's Sevens Challenge Cup in London in May, one particular group of supporters back home will be willing her to ever greater heights.
When she’s not carving up defences with her pace and guile from fly half, De la Cruz works as a programme manager for indigenous engagement at Palmerston Girls Academy, just outside Darwin.
For these youngsters in Australia’s Northern Territory, sport – and athletes such as De la Cruz – is a source of inspiration. The 31-year-old takes the responsibility of being an Aboriginal role model in her stride.
“It’s not added pressure - there’s always pressure (when representing Australia),” she says. “I love to get out to the community, and they’re always expecting you to perform.
“I think I’ve proven myself in rugby and, as far as being an Aboriginal player, a lot of the indigenous community supports me. Our programme is about engagement through sport.”
Rugby in the blood
Growing up, her own role models were Australian Rules football stars such as Michael Long and Maurice Rioli, and De la Cruz excelled at touch rugby, competing in two world cups, in 2002 and 2007.
She took up rugby union only in 2008 but, by the following year, was a member of the Rugby World Cup Sevens-winning Australian side in Dubai. Given her family pedigree, however, it’s little wonder that she excels at whichever football code she tries.
Her father, Norm, played rugby league for Australia’s indigenous representative side and her uncle, Gerry, was a half-back with the Canberra Raiders.
The family link continues with her cousins: Shannon, Daniel and Steven Motlop are top-level Australian rules football players, while Joel Romelo is hooker for Canterbury Bulldogs in the National Rugby League competition.
Adjusting to the physicality of full-contact rugby came naturally, she says: “I played Aussie rules up here; I grew up around my boy cousins.”
But while she’s not afraid of the rough stuff, her assets are her speed and organisation – skills that she says 'touch footy' helped to hone.
“I utilise my space well – touch players often have really good vision,” she says.
Every motivation to succeed
At 165cm and 69kg, De la Cruz's fleet-footedness is perfect for the abbreviated form of the game, and she will be looking to use that pace to avenge Australia’s defeat by England in the final of the Hong Kong tournament in March.
And for added motvation, the tournament in London is also something of a homecoming for De la Cruz. Her mother, Joan, is from Yorkshire and her proud parents are travelling over to watch her play.
The Australians, led by Rebecca Tavo, gather for a training camp at Canberra’s Institute of Sport before jetting off to compete in London on 12-13 May. As world champions, they will doubtless be keen to stake their claim to the No.1 ranking before the new women’s world series kicks off.
De la Cruz identifies England as major rivals as well as Australia’s opponents in a tough pool: USA, France and China. The inclusion of Sevens in the Olympic programme at Rio 2016 is raising its profile outside traditional rugby countries, and de la Cruz says China will command respect.
“They’ve got some really talented players – some big girls,” says the 31-year-old, who clearly has the Olympics on her radar: “I definitely intend to get there - I’d be one of the senior players, but if I’m still fighting fit...”
At Palmerston Girls Academy there is a wall of inspirational Aboriginal sportswomen such as Cathy Freeman and Evonne Goolagong-Cawley; some of De la Cruz’s proteges have asked why her picture isn’t up there.
Success at the London Sevens – and Rio, perhaps – and that will surely change.
Highlights: Hong Kong women's action