It’s just under a fortnight until the Aussie Sevens women take on their rivals in an effort to secure and protect their number one spot in the World Rugby rankings.
On the distant shores of Sao Paolo, the Women’s HSBC World Rugby Sevens series is set to continue in a season which has been shortened from its previous six rounds to five for this 2016 Olympic year.
Looking to make this a watershed year for Women’s Rugby Sevens in Australia -- much like the Southern Stars did for cricket in 2015 -- the Aussie Women have set goals at the core of their development and training program: win the 2015/2016 World Series and take gold in Rio.
There are star performers in the team who are working hard to raise the profile of Sevens rugby as part of the expanding landscape of women’s sport in Australia.
Ellia Green is being seen as a force of nature with her long dark braids distinguishing her out on the pitch: it’s not hard to spot her when she decides to make her trademark run down the sideline, attesting to her former life as an elite track sprinter, once she has the ball in hand. She is vibrant, funny and seen as the joker in the squad. But like any ‘family’, she is just one member of a diverse and talented group.
Sharni Williams (currently injured and set to miss Brazil) is the captain and long-time leader of this team. Her strength and experience mark her as the one targeted in tackles and at the breakdown. In combination with good friend and long-time teammate Shannon Parry, these two veterans of Australian rugby are a force to be reckoned with when they have their game faces on as the power pair in the line-up.
Emilee Cherry joins Charlotte Caslick and Alicia Quirk as other key playmakers with a wealth of tournament time and success under their belts (Cherry was the 2013/2014 International Women’s Player of the Year and Caslick was nominated for the same award last season) yet still in their early twenties with veterans like Etheridge, Turner and Beck adding to that core of experience.
What makes this unit exciting is the fine balance of youth and experience which the coach Tim Walsh has crafted, with the average age in the team still just 22 years.
The young guns
Pulling that average age down is the remarkable crop of talented teenagers whom Walsh has blooded over the past twelve months. Dom Du Toit, Laura Waldie and Shenae Ciesiolka have all impressed in recent tournament appearances having been put through their paces at international competition level; including over just the past eight months the Pacific Games in PNG, the Youth Commonwealth Games in Samoa and the recent Coral Coast Sevens tournament in Fiji.
“The beauty of the squad at the moment is the depth we’ve been able to build and, with players not available, [others] can step in and do exactly the same job,” says Walsh.
The uniqueness of this group of Australian sportswomen is that they are contracted and centrally located at the Australian Sevens headquarters based at the Sydney Academy of Sport and Recreation in Narrabeen, where they train full-time alongside the Men’s team, combining regularly with the men for particular training drills and sessions.
The Sydney Sevens
This past weekend has seen the running of the inaugural Sydney Sevens tournament -- round four of the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Men’s series -- which played to a packed Allianz Stadium, hosting more than 73,000 people across the two days.
As a feature within the busy Men’s fixture, the fans were treated to a three game ‘friendly’ series between the Australian Women’s Sevens team and the visiting Ireland team, showcasing the athleticism, power, strength and fast pace that is Women’s Rugby Sevens -- and the Aussies are currently the best in the world at playing it!
While the Australian team made a clean sweep of the series against the Irish (ranked 12th in the world), Tim Walsh says nothing beats tournament time and this forum was something special for the team, especially ahead of next week’s second round in the Women’s World Series.
“Overall I was happy with it. The prep leading into Sao Paulo is vital and to do it in front of a home crowd was awesome,” said Walsh addressing the media after the final game.
There were many, both at the stadium and watching the broadcast, who would have started the weekend with little or no knowledge of Women’s Rugby Sevens as a sport, let alone of Australia having a team -- not so by the end.
“Every time they play in stadiums or on TV and people see them, [they] say ‘Wow, didn’t realise the girls could play like that’, but they are world class athletes who train full time and they’re the best of the best.”
“We have got a very strong group and they’re intelligent and athletic,” said Walsh adding “I really appreciate that we’re out here now, but I’d love to see it as a joint competition and get the girls out there more often and change the awareness and the appreciation that these girls are world class athletes.”
Walsh may get his wish as, almost immediately following the conclusion of what is being hailed as a major success for the ARU and World Rugby, discussions are reportedly underway to expand the 2017 Sydney Sevens tournament to a three-day joint Men’s and Women’s World Series competition similar to those held in Dubai and formerly in London.
The Aussie Pearls (as they are sometimes known) put on a class in Rugby Sevens which left no-one in any doubt as to why they are the leaders in this sport with the crowd in Sydney very quickly taking the women on the field to their hearts as their minds took in the quality of the performance they were witnessing.
The year ahead
It is set to be a big year for Australian Rugby Sevens as the sport prepares to debut at the 2016 Rio Olympics and the Australian Women’s team will be prominently in the mix hoping to successfully fend off all challengers.
There is however a World Series to get through first and that is the immediate focus of this tight, well-drilled squad. So they are off to Brazil next week to take the next step on their path to achieving their ultimate goals.