We look at the reasons behind the fine form of Australia's men's and women's teams
Australia Sevens on the rise… Again
Talk of contenders for Commonwealth Games sevens gold and Australia will get a mention. Of course they would for the women, you would assume, right? Wait, you mean the men too?
There’s a real sense that Australia is ‘back’ on two fronts – though it’s worth looking at the context.
After taking gold at the Rio Olympics in 2016, the women’s side had the Black Ferns not just come up on the rails but overtake them in a way that has taken time to come back from.
In the 2018 Commonwealth Games final it was 12-all and deep into extra time when a lung-destroying, soul-shattering score was ripped off by Kelly Brazier, claiming gold for New Zealand. The Kiwis would then win the Olympics in Tokyo while Australia’s women were knocked out in the quarter-finals by Fiji.
The men suffered the same fate in Japan, unable to lay a glove on eventual champions Fiji. For some, it felt like more of the same from a side unable to demonstrate consistency for a number of years.
Then came the dank ages, as Covid dragged everyone down. The men’s programme had shreds torn off it as Rugby Australia’s budget cuts bit. Only six men were retained full-time. Others were brought in from around the national game to make up the numbers. The women struggled for game time during the pandemic and it showed by the time the Olympics rolled around.
And yet there has been a turnaround. The women won the most recent HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series and the men currently sit second in the table, behind the Blitzboks, with one leg left to play in LA in late August.
“I feel like pre-Tokyo, we just didn’t have that bond, that sisterhood bond,” Faith Nathan recently said of the women’s progamme. “I felt like we weren’t working as a team in the Olympics and felt like it made everyone work for one another after that and we worked hard for the first eight weeks after the Olympics.”
There has also been a big change in set-ups too, though. Something that Rob Vickerman, one of the voices of sevens, explains.
“The underlying story is around the fact that the men’s and women’s coaches John Manenti and Tim Walsh have flipped… Begrudgingly flipped,” Vickerman says of the coaching swap that came after a medal-free Olympics run. Walsh had led the women to Rio glory, and had taken on the task of transforming the men’s system on a shoestring, but he would be moved.
Vickerman goes on: “It was the union’s decision that the marquee team were the women, so Walsh was perceived as being the superior coach – and I’m not sure how that went down but that’s how it was worded – so he got the reins again with the women.
“So Manenti, who was a prop in his playing days, kind of came in with no expectation really, but I really like what he’s done (with the men). And the star behind the scenes, who no one really talks about but I think it’s really important, is James ‘Chucky’ Stannard. He has been massively influential in the men’s programme.
“So Manenti and him have formed this coaching duo and they’ve gone really well. As you’ve seen throughout the years when he was playing, Chucky is the quintessentially abrasive Aussie, really fast, really fit. And they are replicating how he used to play, right across the board. So that’s exciting.”
Manenti had assisted Walsh in Rio and, when he took over, he said of the men’s side: “The perception of the programme wasn’t what it should have been; nobody knew where it sat in the rugby landscape. For us to be taken seriously we have to be consistently on the podium.”
The fight for funding and attention is fierce. In this competition in Coventry they have New Zealand, Fiji and South Africa to contend with, and that’s before you add in the upset potential posed by Samoa or the Home Nations.
The presence of Samu Kerevi is one that will ensure there is intrigue around the Aussie men’s performances. He is a bona fide superstar in 15s. But according to Vickerman, the men in gold have already developed a style that can make heroes out of a few newish faces.
“In Australia, because they have such heavy competition with other sports, they tend to do quite well with their talent ID,” the commentator says. “One of the best stories is Dietrich Roache, who basically got given a ticket to go and watch sevens for the first time he’d ever seen it, loved the concept and started playing it. And the guy’s absolutely unreal. And you’ve seen this year how he’s taken to it alongside Corey Toole as well.
“He was fringing Super Rugby, they got him back into the sevens set-up for the Olympics and he’s just kicked on. So there’s young, very dynamic, very fit, athletic players who have just fitted in on the series perfectly. And it’s changed the way they played a bit.
“So the likes of Maurice Longbottom is now coming on for three or four minutes to impact. But it’s the fact that they’ve got such good all-rounders right across the board for the men, which is being underpinned by these young lads coming in who’ve just completely transformed the pace.
“The one thing you’d always say about Australia, they didn’t have anyone that was rapid. Tim Walsh was aware of that when he was head coach of the men and so he tried to bring in ‘Quadzilla’ (sprinter Trae Williams, who converted to rugby) but it didn’t work. Anyway, these two guys are tearing up trees, they’ve done amazingly well. And they’re building the big forward pack around them who are also quite dynamic.
“They have your typical Aussie back-rowers, with the likes of Henry Paterson. Nick Malouf was a winger in 15s but he’d been playing prop and then Henry Hutchinson has actually been playing hooker. So a guy that was traditionally the paceman has now transitioned into the forwards. And they’re just so abrasive, which I love.”
We have seen the impact the women’s set-up can have even outside of their own shores, as detailed by Ali Donnelly in her piece ‘How women changed the face of 7s‘ for Scrum Queens. The bookies see this women’s Commonwealth event as a two-horse race, with the Black Ferns as favourites. Click, though, and the Australians can be irresistible.
Co-captain Demi Hayes recently told Rugby.co.au: “How much emphasis has gone on training in the last 12 months has been really important, so from a mental and physical point of view we’re definitely ready. I think it will take it to another level.
“Securing the World Series was a massive one for us but the Olympics wasn’t the result we wanted, so getting the gold here will be an awesome achievement.”
For the neutrals amongst us, a final as tense as 2018 would be enthralling. But the Aussies feel like their “sisterhood” is strong enough now to see them go one better. For the men, making the medals would be neat validation for a team enjoying a rocketing resurgence.
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