History looms this week for both the game of Rugby Sevens and Women’s sport in Australia.
The final round of the Women’s World Rugby Sevens series will take place this weekend in Clermont-Ferrand in the picturesque Auvergne region of central France and the Aussie team is poised to take the title, becoming the first Australian Rugby Sevens team -- male or female -- to be world champions and the first women’s team, other than New Zealand, to win the Championship.
What will it take?
Australia has won three of the four tournaments already played in the 2015/2016 series giving it a lead of 12 points over nearest rival New Zealand. So to avoid being overtaken, the Aussies must finish in the top six places which most supporters would assume is a ‘no-brainer’.
But with 20 points on offer for the tournament win, it is still mathematically possible for the Kiwis to break Australian hearts and Coach Tim Walsh will not concede any ground on assuming a win.
“Yes, we are 12 points clear but strange things happen in sport and this isn’t that strange. We finished seventh in a tournament last year and this year we just scraped through a couple of quarter finals and then won the tournament, but if we end up on the other side of that, we’re in that area. And New Zealand are in good form -- they’ve made the last two finals -- if they go ahead and win which is very likely, and then if we slip up, there is that possibility we could lose our advantage that we have in the World Series,” he said.
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The difference between last year and this however is the growth of the Australian team both in the way they play the game and the way they think about it. Walsh believes the key factors that have made the difference are those of attitude and confidence as well as the weight of experience.
“It’s the maturity of the players; the way they handle pressure situations and the experience around decision making as well. Last year we were about growth and leadership and that middle part of the season where we finished sixth and seventh and then bounced back to first and second, that was a really good learning curve for us and I think we’ve used what we learnt last year and implemented this year.”
“Then there are always the ongoing trends around physical strength and conditioning. The combinations get stronger and the girls get more experience -- they get more caps and they’re getting winning experience which is vitally important,” he said.
“These girls are just getting better and better every year”
Amy Turner is the eldest member of the team and if there is one thing that she too is certain about it’s the quality of the team around her and the extent to which they have improved over the past year.
“The skill set in these girls is just amazing but the things that they can do now in comparison to what they could do before is just phenomenal: the likes of Ellia Green -- she’s just a freak -- in a good way! She’s so strong and fast and she can just do some unbelievable things. These girls are just getting better and better every year,” she said.
In addition to the abundant talent in this group, Turner agrees that the closeness of the unit contributes significantly to its on-field success.
“Most of the girls have been together for over two years now so we’ve learnt from our mistakes and we just keep getting better and better -- and we’re just like a family off the field.”
“I think we’ve shown already that if you’re a tight unit on the field as you are off the field, then you’re going to keep winning tournaments. You just have that special bond and you know each and every one of those girls have each other’s backs and would do anything for one another -- so I think that has helped big time out on the field,” she said.
The team Walsh has selected and taken to France is the most experienced he could put together from the larger squad with 159 caps between them and with long-time captain Sharni Williams returning from an injury lay-off, the strength of the team -- both physically and in terms of leadership -- will be formidable.
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Any Sevens coach will tell you that the most crucial game of the weekend is the Cup quarter-final -- but you have to get that far first.
So the matches on Day One become the first hurdle and Australia is in Pool C in Clermont-Ferrand with France, Fiji and Ireland and Tim Walsh is under no illusions that his charges will have their work cut out for them.
“The French will be full of passion and the French at home are formidable -- proven throughout sport in different codes. They’re a pretty well balanced team, got good speed and are hitting some form. They’re a very physical team -- they really seem to embrace and enjoy the physicality. So (they’re) very passionate, very physical and then have the French flair.”
“The Fijians on their day, I think they can beat anyone when their offloads stick and the ball bounces the right way, they’re going to be unstoppable and I think particularly early on Day One, they’re going to be really firing.”
“The Irish are coming off a really good second day in Langford. (They’re) back on the Sevens circuit now and getting better every tournament.”
“So it’ll be great for us playing against the French in France but a tricky pool and that’s what we’re focussing on at the moment -- Day One -- and to perform as best we can to make sure we’re in that good position for Day Two,” Walsh concluded.
It’s been a significant series with reigning champions New Zealand, the team which has dominated the Women’s World Series since its inception in 2012, no longer leading the way.
Australia has emerged as the new front runner to be chased with the Kiwis showing some form but also some inconsistency; Canada -- the third of the leading trio in recent years -- has stumbled at times with England re-emerging in impressive form after two seasons outside the top three.
Stronger opposition from all the core teams has also challenged the traditional leaders with the likes of France, Fiji, USA and even Russia all showing the benefits of the development programs in which most participating nations have invested because of the lure of Olympic inclusion for Rugby Sevens this year.
The Sevens in Clermont-Ferrand this weekend should be action-packed with all teams looking to make a final statement, in a tournament format, ahead of various pre-Olympic agendas.
The coach has the last word
While taking a guarded approach in the lead up to the final round, ultimately Tim Walsh knows the success or not for the Aussie Women is solely in their hands as they have all the ammunition they need in their arsenal to bring home this title and the 2015/2016 World Series Championship.
“We’re obviously not going there to finish sixth or (just) to win the World title, we’re going there to perform our best and win the tournament. We want to finish this season on a high and then use this tournament as a preparation for August,” said Walsh.