HSBC World Rugby Women’s Sevens Series winners one minute and inaugural Olympic gold medallists the next, 2016 was always going to be a tough year for Australian to beat.
In normal circumstances, second place on the world series behind New Zealand in the 12 months that followed would not be considered a failure but, for a side that had grown used to being top of the podium, it was still largely one to forget.
“It was always going to be tough and we completely expected that,” coach Tim Walsh admitted. “We are very disappointed with the way we played. We never really focus on results, although that is what we are sort of measured on, but we didn’t play to our potential and that is probably what hurts us the most, as coaches and players.”
Determined to put things right ahead of a campaign like no other, with the world series, a home Commonwealth Games and Women’s Rugby World Cup Sevens rolled into one, Walsh’s charges have been preparing hard for what he anticipates will be “an awesome year.”
SIX TO WATCH
Back in August, the inaugural Aon University Sevens gave both new blood and existing sevens stars the chance to not only catch the eye of Walsh and his fellow selectors, but also get valuable game time in a competitive environment ahead of the series opener in Dubai on 30 November-1 December.
And this week, six of the rising stars from that event will be part of the Australian squad that faces New Zealand in an exciting five-match series in Bendigo.
“New Zealand were the champions for the 2016-2017 season and set the benchmark last year. This series provides with an excellent opportunity to test ourselves as we continue our preparation for the world series," Walsh explained.
“The players who have been selected from the Aon University Sevens Series to join our squad have all shown real promise this year. Taking the next step to an international series is going to test them on a whole new level and I look forward to seeing how they respond to that.”
Mackenzie Sadler (University of Queensland), Page McGregor (Macquarie University), Katie Harrison (Macquarie University), Yasmin Meakes (University of Canberra), Olivia White (University of Tasmania) and Lauren Brown (Griffith University) all made the cut and will be looking to press forward their claims for a place on the world series roster.
RAISING THE BAR
With Olympians such as Charlotte Caslick, Sharni Williams, Emilee Cherry and Alicia Quirk still very much part of the picture, Walsh is excited by the depth of talent at his disposal and believes the new breed coming through can raise the bar even higher.
“I just look at the current girls that I have had the pleasure of working with for four or five years and think how remarkable they are with the way they applied themselves athletically and mentally and how quickly they took it on.
“Is this next lot the same? I guess, ultimately, they are going to be better because they are going to have these other girls, their role models, teaching them.
“The next two or three years will prove that but, from what I have seen, there is some very special talent coming through with real points of difference that are very much suited to the way that we want to play the game.
"The biggest thing (with the Aon University Sevens) was building the pathway and putting the depth into the Australian women’s sevens programme. We were out there really to find the future world series players and the future Olympians.”
While the next three days in Bendigo will be about continued squad development as much as results, Walsh knows that any game against New Zealand falls into the ‘must-win’ category, especially as the series concludes on the same night that the Wallabies take on the All Blacks in the final Bledisloe Cup tie of the year.
“I think that is the thing with both teams, it doesn’t matter who they are playing, they want to win and that is why they are successful. But when you do throw in the old Australia-New Zealand clash I think everyone just gets a little bit more excited and a little bit more motivated. Hopefully it will culminate in a fifth and final game play-off between the best two countries currently in the world.”
While the stage and setting are very different to the day when Australia famously beat New Zealand 24-17 to win gold in Rio de Janeiro, this week’s five- match series will rekindle memories for those involved, Walsh included.
“When you reflect on that magical moment on 8 August 2016, the whole country was watching a game of rugby between the old foes, Australia and New Zealand, at 8am on Tuesday morning, prime-time television. It was just exceptional.
“I think whenever it is Australia and New Zealand there is certainly an extra level, but when it’s rugby being played, on Bledisloe Cup night, it is on a whole new level and it has the formula for being a great day.”