When Yool Yool found out he was going to become the first player of South Sudanese origin to represent Australia in rugby, his first thought was to call his mum.
“I was like, ‘Mum, I might need to sort out my passport’,” Yool, a 22-year-old back who became an international rugby player for Australia at the Emirates Dubai Sevens, said.
“She was like, ‘Why?’ And I told her I would be making my debut in Dubai. She started crying, and everyone started crying.
“My passport had expired as it was still a child one, so I was in a rush to get it done. It took a little while in the mail and I wasn’t too happy with that. I was quite scared.”
Yool was only six-months-old when his mother, Helena, fled the Sudanese civil war. At first, she took her three sons and two daughters to Egypt.
When Yool was four, the family resettled in Australia, finding a community of Sudanese refugees in a town called Orange, which is around 250kms west of Sydney.
“I don’t know much about the process, I just know my mum got us out of there because of civil conflict,” Yool said.
“She did that as a single mother with lots of kids, so she is a champion for that.”
Yool now lives in Manly, a suburb of Sydney, while the rest of his family have moved to Melbourne. Last month, he got the call from Tim Walsh, the coach of Australia’s sevens, that he had been picked to tour Dubai for the first two legs of the 2022 World Sevens Series. He immediately got on the phone to Melbourne.
“Walshy told me I would be going to Dubai, and I was quite emotional,” Yool said.
“I have just come back from an injury to my ankle. But when my mum found out, that was probably the most emotional part.
“She doesn’t know the rules, but she knows I’m trying to do alright at it. She was happy.
“She said an opportunity like this was why she brought us over to Australia – to do what we want to do, and not be caught up in civil conflict.”
Although players of South Sudanese heritage are rare in rugby, some have excelled in other codes. In 2018, Thomas Deng and Awer Mabil debuted on the same night in Kuwait for Australia’s national football team.
Yool said he had also played football while growing up, as well as Australian Rules football and basketball, but became hooked on rugby after being introduced to it by his mates.
“It started like most things do, which was through my friends playing it,” he said.
“I have always played a lot of sports, like basketball and soccer. Just through playing at school, my best mate got me involved in rugby and I have played it ever since.
“I have a lot of good memories from playing rugby with my mates, and I am always chasing that feeling.
“With these boys [in the Australia team], most of us have only known each other for a few weeks now. The core have been together for a while now, but most of us have just come in, and we have all bonded.
“When you bond like that you create moments like on that field [at the Dubai Sevens].”
Historically, Australia have struggled to make a mark on the Dubai Sevens. Yet this weekend they reached the final, for just the second time, with a squad including touring debutant Yool and several other rookies.
They might have won the final, too, were it not for a late South Africa try and a contentious refereeing decision at the end.
Yool, for his part, was not too downcast given the memories made on a tour which stated with a jersey presentation while riding camels in the desert, and also included playing against his hero.
“I knew that it was a massive tournament because I have always watched sevens,” he said.
“I have been at the Sydney Sevens, so it was quite a dream to come here. I used to look up to [United States star] Perry Baker, and I had to face him, which was pretty cool.
“I haven’t told him [that he was his role model] yet. I’m too nervous.”
Walsh believes Yool is set for a bright future as part of an increasingly diverse Australia set up.
“The diversity in our team is unbelievable,” the coach said.
“You have all these different characters all jockeying for individual positions within the team. They all have their own personality and background. I think that is the secret to a really strong culture.
“Yool has a huge future. He is an incredibly athlete, and a real character. He is quick, he is strong, and he is confident.”