Finally we know which 12 members of the broader Aussie Sevens Women’s squad will be boarding the plane to Rio and taking with them the hopes of all Australians who want to see this team secure the inaugural Rugby Sevens gold medal which, based on their form of the past year, would seem to be their destiny.
Coach Tim Walsh admits that in the end, the selections were relatively easy by virtue of the current form of some of the players and their experience.
“They’ve been the core group for three years now and there are five or six players who have been involved in every World Series win and then there’s the next couple that have been very influential in many of them. There were some close decisions but it was very much what was best for the team down to the balance needed,” he said.
The weight of expectation can sometimes prove to be counterproductive, but this Sevens team has thrived on not only their steadily acquired self-belief, but on the belief in the systems and processes Walsh has put in place and, more importantly, in getting each and every player to invest in those completely.
For the past year, there has been the appearance of pursuing youth development ... But this 12-member Rio team is very much based on core experience, maturity and reliability
For the past year, there has been the appearance of pursuing youth development in the program with Walsh often taking a team to tournaments with an average age of just 21 or 22 years. But this 12-member Rio team is very much based on core experience, maturity and reliability – with an age range of 21 to 32 – an average just shy of 25 years.
The only nod towards youth development for Rio has been in his selection of the two emergency players who have been added to the team over the weekend and will expand the Olympic squad to the permitted 14 players.
Dominique Du Toit and Brooke Walker are 19 and 21 years old respectively and their selection enables them to experience the Olympic journey and is very much evidence of Walsh’s continual thought process towards the future, beyond 2016.
The evolution of the Sevens form of rugby is changing the way a team is cultivated and moulded.
Unlike XVs, the shorter form of the game no longer aligns players solely to specific positions and talents.
Walsh believes strongly in the multiskilling of the players and is something he has worked on with this Australian team.
“I think we’re even changing the way people think of Sevens. You hear people saying forward and backs or positions whereas I don’t think in Sevens that really equates anymore,” he said.
"As a sevens player you have to have the ability to be quick, be agile, to pass, to have a technique in the scrum – to do everything. So it’s a credit to all these players to have all those skills and then have just a couple of points of difference."
“As a sevens player you have to have the ability to be quick, be agile, to pass, to have a technique in the scrum – to do everything. So it’s a credit to all these players to have all those skills and then have just a couple of points of difference. We’ve worked hard on identifying what the girls are good at and that was a big influence from the girls themselves.
“They’re not forwards and backs to me, they’re rugby players that each have different attributes that balance around the team. You really just want to get these athletes to have the skills to do a variety of things and then you can manufacture the way you want to play around that and what’s going to be the most effective,” said Walsh.
Walsh uses Alicia Quirk as a prime example. Historically a back, she suggested to Walsh she may be effective in the lineout with her height and light-weight enabling the lifters to get her up high. So he threw her in and says she’s now right up there with the best.
Quirk herself agrees that the multiskilling of the players across the board has proved invaluable to the team dynamic.
“That’s really helped having everyone being really dynamic across the board – being able to fill those gaps if someone gets injured. So we’ve got players that are really multi-skilled in our team - not just the depth. So that’s really helped us and I’m sure we are able to put any team out on the park, play out our game-plan and have the knowledge and skill to be able to do that,” she said.
“I think a lot of teams don’t have that flexibility and that adaptability and you see teams lose key players and then lose their way. We’re very fortunate in that regard and that makes our team even more threatening because you’re actually picking the best rugby players – the 12 best that can play anywhere across the park,” said Quirk.
Gemma ‘never say die’ Etheridge
The inclusion of veteran Gemma Etheridge, who has had three ACL injuries in recent years, is one that Walsh is very pleased with.
In an attempt to make it to this point she has undergone LARS surgery and, as evidenced by her selection, has managed to do what was needed and more to be considered.
“Gemma is one of the most versatile players in terms of her skills. She kicks, she throws to the lineout and she packs in the scrum; so her point of difference is that she can play everywhere – and that’s what makes her such a valued player,” said Walsh.
“This is actually her third ACL. On her second one, she came back into the squad fitter and stronger. It was remarkable how someone could be away from the game and return to it so seamlessly. And that gave me a heap of confidence going into this one. This time around she had the different operation – the LARS – but the way she applied herself to getting fit again was expected because we’ve seen her do it before and be remarkable. She’s been back at training for two weeks now and it’s been exactly the same way as she returned last time – it’s like she hasn’t been away. So I have full confidence in Gemma – and she’s proven that already – but the way that she can cover all positions means that that’s her point of difference and she balances the team out very well,” said Walsh.
Adaptability and Focus is the key
The team has recently been in camp in Darwin replicating the 3-day tournament format of the Olympics – something they have done twice before in preparation for Rio.
Walsh says the key is training the team to be adaptable to all situations and he’s confident they have done just that.
"Our goal as staff and as players is to prepare in the best way that we know how – for our physical side and for our mental side - so we’ve gone through a lot of research around preparation, around mental stuff like crisis management ... practicing what to do and how to prepare."
“Our goal as staff and as players is to prepare in the best way that we know how – for our physical side and for our mental side - so we’ve gone through a lot of research around preparation, around mental stuff like crisis management and we’ve done it three times now – practicing what to do and how to prepare. So our goal is to go there fully prepared and when we do finish, we can walk off the field with no regrets knowing that we gave it everything,” he said.
The privilege of coaching
Walsh says he informed the players of the selection decision before they went to Darwin and the experience was one of the best he has had as a coach. He was joined by Scott Bowen (team manager) when he sat each individual down to deliver the news.
“One of the most beautiful moments was getting to tell them, one on one, that they’d been selected to go to the Olympics. It was just an incredibly special moment to deliver the news and to share with them – it’s a real honour to be a part of this team."
“One of the most beautiful moments was getting to tell them, one on one, that they’d been selected to go to the Olympics. It was just an incredibly special moment to deliver the news and to share with them – it’s a real honour to be a part of this team.
“The reactions were all different in their own way – some even crying – I got quite emotional as well with them; it was a really nice moment to share,” he said.
The Olympics is one of the major boxes Walsh has on his list to tick. He has taken these women to number one in the world – winning the 2016 World Series – and now Rio looms as the next big scalp.
So did he ever imagine his current situation?
“It’s a real privilege and completely unexpected. I don’t think I ever envisaged coaching women let alone going to the Olympics,” said Walsh.
“I think my motivation is around bringing the best out of the girls and the best out of the team. I work for them and for the staff and to see them enjoying themselves and achieving things that they didn’t think they’d be able to achieve in rugby or even to be playing rugby.”
“At our best, no-one can beat us!”
The Australian Women are in no doubt that they will be taking on the role of the hunted.
All the teams that meet them on the field will be making that extra effort against this current powerhouse of Rugby Sevens.
Walsh knows that all the teams have been working hard since the World Series concluded in May but believes the Aussies have a good understanding of their opposition and it will be more about hard work and sustained focus that leads to success in Rio.
“Teams can’t change that much in the three months, but they can put in their best performance in the six games and we expect them to play their best game against us, so we need to be at our best every single day. I believe that if we’re at our best no-one can beat us. It’s a very hard thing to play six games at your best, but that’s what we strive to do,” he said.
“It’s the Olympics - it’s so new to the players and the coaches that it’s just going to be a rollercoaster of a ride. But the team that can focus is going to be the one coming away with the result.”
Get to know your Rugby Sevens team for Rio
1. Shannon Parry
2. Sharni Williams
3. Nicole Beck
4. Gemma Etheridge
5. Emma Tonegato
6. Evania Pelite
7. Charlotte Caslick
8. Chloe Dalton
9. Amy Turner
10. Alicia Quirk
11. Emilee Cherry
12. Ellia Green