Rio doesn’t have a lot in common with Launceston’s Royal Park, but the two will always be intrinsically linked for Lauryn Cooper.
The first-year nursing student will captain The University of Tasmania (UTAS) team when the second Aon Uni 7s Series kicks off in Hobart on Saturday, two years after she was introduced to rugby through Launceston’s Queen Bees, a team started in 2016 by local legal secretary Emily Haywood.
“After watching the Rio Olympics where the women took home gold I thought; ‘yeah, I’m so interested, if I was given the chance I would definitely play the game’,” Cooper said.
“I came to my first training at Royal Park (with the Bees), took my uniform home that night and, that was it, I was playing rugby.”
Haywood was also inspired by watching Australia’s thrilling triumph over arch rival New Zealand in Brazil, so much so she decided to kick start women’s sevens in Tasmania’s second-largest city.
Despite never having touched a rugby ball, she made calls, organised information days, designed jerseys, contacted referees and urged others in neighbouring Burnie and Devonport to do the same.
The result was Tasmania’s first ever women's sevens competition, in which Haywood’s Queen Bees were crowned premiers, and seven members of that original squad were selected for an elite UTAS training camp with Rio Olympian Ellia Green prior to last year’s inaugural Uni 7s Series.
“It’s amazing to see. I expected us to just play week to week and enjoy playing rugby, and enjoy the game, but now we have all these exciting opportunities which have stemmed from it,” Haywood said.
Cooper, a former netballer and rower who cites making her first tackle as the moment she became ‘hooked’ on rugby, said the sport has also introduced her to a whole new community in the city where she was born and bred.
“Yeah, it’s like a little family,” she said, “I’m definitely grateful for the time Emily and Rhiannon (president Rhiannon James) put into running the club and the fact the opportunities are now there.”
Haywood’s Queen Bees existed within the framework of Launceston Rugby Club (the Bumble Bees), a men’s club which came into existence when Glen Dhu and Riverview Rugby Clubs merged in 1999.
The support of former Launceston president Nic Soutiriou and coach Thomas Scarfe as also crucial in the establishment of women’s sevens in the city, Haywood added.
“Nic was awesome from the start,” she said. “He coached us for the first season and none of us had ever played before, most of us had never actually touched a rugby ball, so he had to train is from scratch to learn the game.”
But a chronic player shortage forced the Bumble Bees to abandon on-field activities for the 2018 season, meaning Haywood basically had to start her own club to keep women’s sevens alive in Launceston.
Guided by the Tasmanian Rugby Union’s pathways and development manager Caitlin Ryan, Haywood established the Tamar Valley Vixens. The new club defeated North-West Panthers (Burnie), Devonport and AMC Vikings to win the Northern Autumn Sevens in May and four Vixens; Cooper, Courtney Cook, Alice Robinson and Catrina Tranent, were rewarded with a place in the UTAS squad for this year’s Aon Uni 7s Series.
Former Wallaby and UTAS head coach Luke Burgess, who has been heading up development in the Apple Isle since retiring from professional rugby in 2016, said what Haywood had created in northern Tasmania was inspiring.
“Unfortunately there were some problems with Launceston Rugby Club going under - just not having enough guys to make it all work - but she said; ‘well, we’ve got a team of girls so we’re not going to fold’,” Burgess said.
“She basically needed to start her own entity and we (the TRU) said; ‘well, there are a lot of things you need to do, a lot of boxes you need to tick in terms of setting yourself up’. Emily just went through and hammered it, with so much energy, ticked off every element to building a club.”
UTAS assistant coach James Erwin is based in Launceston and trains the smaller group of northern Tasmanian squad members and Burgess said Cooper has benefited greatly from two seasons in the development program.
“She was part of the (final squad of) 12 last year, which was a big achievement, but we saw her grow over the tournaments and by the final round she was our first choice for that pivot role,” he said of his 19-year-old skipper.
“We relied heavily on her and she just ate it up, she was able to deal with the high workload, and it was really impressive the way she just got on with it.
“Off the field she’s down-to-earth, humble, there’s no funny business. I mean, she’s doing nursing, so she’s not likely to muck around.”
After a season which has included not only the HSBC World Series, but also the Commonwealth Games and World Cup Sevens in San Francisco, the Australian squad members will not be playing in this year’s Uni 7s Series, but Burgess said there is an up-side to the absence of elite players.
“It’s actually a positive,” he said.
“The (local) girls we picked last year have now had two years under our program, two years in the gym and two years with me yelling at them, so they’re a bit more resilient, can deal with the contact a lot better, and they’re just better players.
“It’s awesome to see that all these girls who really committed last year and didn’t get much of a go will now have an opportunity.”
For Haywood, seeing ‘Lonny’ locals go from humble beginnings at Royal Park to playing at grounds all over the nation is reward enough.
“I never thought it would turn into this big thing, especially in Tasmania,” she said.
“Rugby has never been big in general, but particularly for women, and now one of the girls I play alongside is captaining the UTAS team. It’s mind-blowing.”
The 25-year-old admits she might be about to hang up her own boots, but she draws just as much joy from administrating the state’s only all-female club and is also involved in the promotion of junior rugby and Touch 7s in Launceston.
“I might be thinking of taking a step back from playing, but that wouldn’t stop my involvement, because I do enjoy watching the younger girls grow and play and see what opportunities they can take.
“It’s the love of rugby, too, I couldn’t ever picture myself not going to games which are being played locally.
“Tassie in general is pretty small, everyone knows everyone, and I feel that rugby environment is an even tighter family. You turn up to training and see all your best friends, you can’t get much better than that.”