The issue of women versus men on the training track has been much discussed of late, with a general acceptance that due to the differences in physicality, it is not realistic or practical for elite men’s and women’s teams in a sport to train or play against each other.
The Matildas use practice matches against teenage boys’ teams to test their strategies and their fitness, as do the Hockeyroos, based on the premise of different fitness, pace and strength levels compared to the national men’s teams.
To find the reverse of this practice is unusual, but the Australian Rugby Sevens program at Narrabeen, where both the men’s and women’s national teams train, utilises the presence of both squads in training.
It’s refreshingly seeing as a positive for the development and growth of the entire program.
Women’s coach Tim Walsh explains that by accepting the obvious physical disparity between the teams, there are modifications which still make occasional joint training drills worthwhile.
“The men are powerful, quicker and generally taller in all the set-piece stuff – so you’re never going to go into contact against them; it’s just not safe. But because of that muscle and that size and that power, they can move quicker and be more agile: so the way we see it is if we can contain the men defensively then we’re going to have a lot easier time playing against women,” he said.
The philosophy being that the game is the same and the strategies and technical aspects are the same but just the power and pace ratios differ. So by focusing on the former, the women get to be challenged by a much tougher opposition while removing the physical aspects which could undermine the task.
Walsh says the process works in sharpening up every aspect of his team’s game.
“We need to be sharper in our movement, quicker in our communication and we set certain goals around if they (men) do score, it’s where they score and how they get around us – so it just sharpens everything up from our point of view.”
Aussie Sevens Women’s player Alicia Quirk also underlines how beneficial the women find the challenge of training against the Men - be it the national squad or one of the non-professional Men’s Sevens teams like the ‘Mozzies’ (the NT rep team) as was the case when the women did their pre-Rio training camp in Darwin.
“We trained against the Mozzies in both conditioning and game scenarios with our set piece stuff - practicing against unknown teams so we can make sure we’re executing the right game plan. They simulated being our (Rio) opposition so that we were prepared as much as we can be. That was really beneficial for us and then to do that on top of all the heat adaptation too,” she said.
The modifications depend on whether the training drill is around defence or attack. If the women train against the Aussie men in an attacking scenario the line-up will be a full contingent of 7 in attack while the men will defend with 5 players. If it’s the reverse and the practice is for the defensive set-up, then it will be 7 against 7.
“If we play against the Mozzies or another team it might be ‘7 v 7’ because they’re not as fit. And the girls are phenomenal athletes and, unless you’re a professional athlete and you come to play against these girls, you’re going to struggle,” explained Walsh.
“So if it’s ‘7 v 7’ of non-contact against non-professional athletes, the girls certainly hold their own and it’s still very beneficial for us and the longer we play that, the better the girls get because those boys just don’t have the fitness to go with these elite athletes.”
Quirk – a player who loves a challenge – relishes the idea of having to pit herself against the Aussie men and see where the improvements in skill and technique can come from.
“It’s definitely much harder. So if they’re attacking and we’re defending the whole time our aim – given we know they’re going to be faster – is if they score, they score out wide (nothing comes through the middle of us); and then when we attack they have 5 defending, we’re still able to score and to stop them from scoring.
“We’re able to match them in parts of the game with speed and agility and defence. It’s good for our defensive systems to have to practise because there are girls that are quicker than us on the World Series. We turn the negative of them being quick into a positive for us and then it’s about how we adapt our defence systems or our attack in that regard,” she said.
With the benefits of this type of training for the women evident in their performance this past year, Quirk says the men also get valuable experience from the exercise.
“I really enjoy it because – in terms of the level we play at on the World Series – you can never get enough practice unless you get an international team that comes here and plays against you. If, however, you go above and beyond that and train with the men, then you’re going to have to work a lot harder to get the benefit of that.”
“I’m very thankful that we get the opportunity to do that and the boys have no issues in taking us on, having a crack and really testing us. Especially our men’s program – working alongside them all the time – they give us tips on what we’re doing well, what we could do better and we do the same.”
“So we’re obviously working together for the one goal and to know that we’ve both got invaluable experience to help each other - that’s a real positive out of it all too,” said Quirk.
Tim Walsh agrees, pointing out that the exercise must be mutually beneficial within the Sevens program for it to be worth doing.
“As long as it fits in with us and with Andy’s (Friend) and Nick Poulos’ Strength and Conditioning plan for their week, then it’s hugely beneficial. The boys enjoy helping the girls and we get so much out of it that it just brings our program together. The boys can offer different things that they saw out there and the girls do the same. The girls are highly intelligent and have such awareness now that after the session we’ll have a program talk and just talk about each-other’s performances and offer little bits of feedback. So it’s really good for our program but it also really benefits and ticks boxes for both teams,” he said.
So the rugby set up would seem to be unique in Australian sport in its approach to the concept of pitting men against women in training, having found a way to bypass the obvious drawback of differing physicality which other sports deem prohibitive.
While it may not be a philosophy and practice that is transferrable to other team sports, the Australian Sevens program has certainly found a way to make it work as yet another layer to the development of both the teams’ capabilities on the field and their broader team culture off the field.
An aspect not lost on Alicia Quirk.
“I love the way our set up is. It’s very helpful for each other and especially for a new sport going to the Olympics - the fact that we’ve done it all together is really going to make our time and experience a lot better,” she said.