So it’s now three days since the Sydney 7s wrapped up with Gold Medals to both the Aussie Men and Women’s teams. It was a remarkable series of performances by both of our teams that has me still buzzing days later.
As the unofficial opening of the Australian Rugby season this year I thought it apt to pause and reflect on some of the key takeaways of the tournament.
‘They’ say that defence is 90% attitude, 10% technique.
This weekend gone goes a fair way to proving that statement.
Hot on the highs of their Rio Olympic Gold, the women’s team had a disappointing 2016/2017 World 7s Series. They didn’t win a single event on the tour and their inability to contain their opponents was a big contributing factor in their failings. The kiwis proved to be their bogey team while Canada beat them twice (including a 33-0 drubbing in Japan). For a team that had set themselves such a high bar, it was a disappointing outcome and change would be needed to ensure they returned to the winner’s circle.
And whatever’s changed has worked.
There were glimpses in Dubai late last year, notably in the final where they smashed the USA 34-0. But nothing would prepare us for what we saw in Sydney. Over their six games the Aussies impressively amassed 213 points but incredibly conceded nothing. It was an unbelievable effort and the first time any team has gone through a World Sevens Tournament without conceding a point. Take a look at this video snippet and you can see the pressure they placed on their opponents.
— World Rugby Sevens (@WorldRugby7s) January 28, 2018
That is simply remarkable rugby and given the expectation of more space on the field in a 7s game, that brick wall defence the Aussies built is incredible.
While the Men didn’t keep their slate clean it was clear that defence was a cornerstone of their success as well. Despite some solid work in keeping Perry Baker relatively quiet in their first game, the Aussies only just did enough to get through the Pool games undefeated. But that’s when things changed.
Coach Andy Friend challenged the players to back their aggressive defensive structure, pointing out moments where they lapsed in the early games. As one, the players committed to back themselves and the results flowed.
An historic win over the kiwis was the first sign as the New Zealanders struggled to cope with the aggressive Aussies. Taking great confidence from this results the Men wouldn’t let another try in for their remaining finals matches.
They were clinical in defeating Argentina 28-0 but they went next level in doing the same to South Africa’s Blitzboks. The Saffas have set the standard in recent years and nothing had indicated that they wouldn’t continue their roll against the Aussies. Nothing except the Aussies themselves.
They were relentless in D and never gave the space the speedy South Africans craved. No that’s wrong. It happened once when the Boks cleared from their line and Rosko Specman recovered and raced away for the inevitable try.
Inevitable it wasn’t though as 20-year old rookie Lachie Anderson chased him down and managed to force Specman into touch at the very last moment.
It was indicative of the attitude of the Aussies throughout the 2nd day.
And you know what they say about attitude and defence…
Respect the Vets
It’s a young person’s game, Sevens, and if you look at some of the stand out stars of the Australian teams, you may think the same.
But I personally couldn’t get over the work of the ‘veterans’ of the Aussie teams this weekend past and just how crucial they were to the dual-success.
Let’s start with the almost 35 year old James Stannard who has recently announced that this would be his last year of rugby. ‘Chucky’ was at his crafty best through the weekend and came up with some massive plays at key moments for his side.
There were two standout moments that spring to mind. One was the try to Charlie Taylor right on half time in the Quarter Final against the kiwis. The other was the below play in the Final which resulted in a try to John Porch.
RE:LIVE: That’s how it’s done in a Cup final!
— World Rugby Sevens (@WorldRugby7s) January 28, 2018
What’s notable in each is the work that Stannard does to keep in play. The first was a set piece move which started from his own lineout throw which came back to him off the top, then a wrap around with Lewis Holland before he delivered a perfectly timed pass to Taylor to score on the other side of the field.
The above move was more from broken play and again Stannard ‘started’ the moved on the opposite side of the field yet stayed alive and ended up pulling out that brilliant kick for Porch to regather to score.
Both plays prove that his fitness is as good as anyone in the team, but his ability to execute under pressure was just as impressive.
In the women’s team we have co-captains Shannon Parry and Sharni Williams. Both are unique within their squad (1) for being closer to 30 than 20 and (2) for being from a rugby XVs background. While Stannard has already declared time on his career, there’s no public talk yet on Parry and Williams. And it’s not that I am suggesting they should both move on. I am more concerned about what happens if they do.
In a team that thrives on the many and varied backgrounds of their squad through involvement in basketball, athletics, OzTag and touch, Parry and Williams have provided that point of difference that adds such value to their squad.
One only has to have seen that first minute of play in the Grand Final where Parry snagged a brilliant pilfer to turn over possession. Pressure that soon resulted in Parry herself barging over for the opening try of the game and one that would set the scene for the next 13 minutes.
Coach Walsh uses the two exquisitely throughout the tournament starting Parry with Williams coming on at half time, if not a minute each side. It ensure the Aussies always had one of their inspiring, uncompromising leaders on the field at all time – standard bearers that may not get the kudos of some of the more high profile stars, but who are the foundation of this Australian team’s success.
The Australian Women’s 7s program has done an excellent job of bringing through the next generation of stars. Perhaps that’s a reason for the below par performances of last year but it’s starting to pay off now. The likes of Dom du Doit, Georgie Friedrichs, Demi Hayes, Page McGregor and Emma Sykes have been in and around the squad for a couple of years now with Sykes in particular looking world-class already.
The Men’s program have the challenge of battling Super Rugby (and overseas) for the hearts and minds of young rugby players. Add to that the loss of the regular players Pama Fou, Cam Clark and Henry Hutchison to Super Rugby as well as Ed Jenkins to retirement, and Coach Andy Friend has had to rush the development pathway a little.
To the casual rugby fan the names Lachie Anderson, Tim Anstee and Ben O’Donnell may not have meant much prior to this weekend. But if those same casual rugby fans managed to catch a glimpse of any of the Aussie’s games this weekend, then they’d have been blown away by the talent on show.
Anstee and O’Donnell both ended up being named in the official Team of the Tournament while Anderson was named Player of the Final. It is symbolic of the remarkable performances of these three young stars.
For a country that is often criticised for its lack of depth the performance of this relatively no-name squad was a perfect antidote to the negativity around Australian of late.
Under the Radar
Successful teams are made up of an amalgam of personalities, abilities and styles. Not everyone is going to be the crowd or media favorite, and by no means does everyone want to be it. There are often the player who gets the job done for the team while only really receiving the platitudes from their coach or team mates.
John Porch and Evania Pelite seem like two of those players to me.
Back in 2015 Porch put in a handful of impressive performances for the North Harbour Rays in the NRC. From that he managed to make his way into the Aussies 7s program and begin his journey. It wasn’t an immediate success as Porch perhaps struggled to adapt to the shorter game. There also seemed to be an experiment with him being groomed as an alternative playmaker to Stannard. In the end he know comes across as someone who is playing with the confidence of someone who knows there game and that was evident all weekend.
Pelite has been in the Aussie system a bit longer including being part of the Gold Medal winning Olympic Youth team in 2013. For mine she was close to the player of the tournament in last year’s inaugural AON Uni 7s competition, playing for the unheralded University of Adelaide. She has always been a contributor to the team, but her play has really matured of late and she’s a vital cog in this machine-like team.
Where were the crowds?
In a weekend that provided so many wonderful memories, one of the least favourable were the thousands of empty seats evident on the broadcast. The three day tournament pulled in a crowd figure of around 56,000 this year which pales in comparison with last year’s 75,000 over two days.
So what happened? Where was everyone?
The move to the Australia Day weekend was a gamble but required because the ARU were adamant they wanted an integrated competition with the women, necessitating a three day competition. The tournament effectively swapped with the NZ 7s comp (this weekend) to allow for the extended tournament structure.
Did the long weekend prevent attendance? Perhaps. Could it be related to rather foul stench that remains over most things Australian Rugby at the moment? More than likely. Is it a seemingly growing trend that has seen most sporting leagues attendance numbers (including the BBL) drop on previous years? Who the hell knows. At least the ratings figures were ok.
But what happens next? With Allianz Stadium to be pretty much rubble this time next year, we need a new venue. Rumours are it may head up the highway to Newcastle. It’s tough to know whether that will work without a concerted long term promotional push between Rugby Australia, NSW Rugby and the local key stakeholders.
It does pose the question whether this tournament should be rotated through cities across Australia to keep the product fresh and the crowd engaged. So far Adelaide, Brisbane and the Gold Coast have all had their turns without anyone really nailing it. Sydney had a good couple of years but perhaps it’s time to start afresh.
Not quite gender equal
While the Men’s Grand Final kicked off at the prime time of around 9pm, the Women ran out for their finale about 6 hours earlier. Just before the all-important 13th place playoff semi final between Canada and PNG.
Meanwhile, a day earlier, the women kicked off their finals campaign with a 10am kick off a good four and a half hours before the first men’s game and seven hours before the Aussie men would play. It makes it a big effort for supporters to cheer on both teams.
What’s the solution? Ben Ryan posed the question around changing the format to a knockout tournament! It would mean that the 13th place play-off matches would no longer take place. This would ultimately mean that not only would the women’s program be more easily accommodated alongside the men’s but also the three day tournament wouldn’t be required, thus easing the burden of host nations to cover three days of costs.
Rugby is an old school game though, particularly in administration. And while Sevens Rugby is relatively new, the concept of Cup and Challenge competitions is a throwback to the amateur days and potentially a hard one to shift.
New Dawn New Zealand
Last year we suffered through a terrible year of Australian Rugby v NZ. In Super Rugby we were 0 and 26 against kiwi sides. We lost the Bledisloe, despite the Brisbane win. The Women’s 7s lost to them (didn’t beat them once in the World Series). They beat us in Australian Schoolboys.
They monstered us.
But here we are – one whole month into 2018 and we are yet to lose to them.
Take hope Australia, take hope.
All photo credit to Keith McInnes.