The Australian Men’s Sevens team will be playing six games over the next two days with the weight of expectation squarely and heavily on every one of their shoulders.
The Oceania7s tournament is this year also doubling as the regional Olympic qualifier and it is not one this Australian team would have expected to carry so much importance.
But this Aussie7s squad must win in Auckland to put its plans for Rio 2016 back on track.
For all the cautious talk 12 months ago about needing to focus on ‘one game at a time’ in the World Series and the Olympic qualification would take care of itself, the ARU and the Sevens unit have never really contemplated that both teams would not get to Brazil, the Women having already qualified in May.
It has been a drama filled two years for the Men’s squad but the experienced core members of the team, who have stayed focused and worked hard while all has gone on around them, will again be on the pitch this weekend.
It's within touching distance for our Aussie men, a berth at The Olympic Games is the prize of winning this weekend.November 12, 2015
Led by long-time captain Ed Jenkins, 11 members of the 12 man team have a wealth of experience on the Sevens pitch representing Australia, with young teenager and exciting Sevens prospect Henry Hutchison looking to make his mark and start his international Sevens journey with the big boys.
The inclusion of XVs player Henry Speight in the Sevens program, in anticipation of a place at the Rio Olympics, has been much talked about and he has been included in the broader 15-man squad for the Auckland trip but is unlikely to see game time due to very limited preparation.
Recovering from the unexpected fifth place finish in the 2014/2015 HSBC World Series standings -- just outside the top four placing needed for automatic Olympic qualification -- has been a test of resilience and determination according to interim Men’s coach Tim Walsh.
“In Sevens you expect a lot and not qualifying – you could almost put a positive on it – has made them more mentally tough doing it the hard way. The more a person is under pressure the more prepared they’ll be, so we just keep fighting and keep coming out on top,” he told The Huffington Post.
The Australians will play their Day One Pool matches against Tonga, Cook Islands and Nauru with the expectation of topping the group and getting to the pointy end of Day Two where all pundits expect they will come up against fellow regional heavyweight Samoa, which is also getting used to a new coach and new challenges.
Samoa is also expecting to go to Rio2016 and this is where the real test will come for the Australian team.
“We go on about how much pressure we’re under and how much we want to do and it’s exactly the same for Samoa. The whole country would be right behind them, so the desire and the emotion is no doubt matched by Samoa,” Walsh said.
Recent form would suggest Walsh has this team on track for a good performance having been through a heavy pre-season of training mixed with some friendly match practice in New Zealand and just three weeks ago a successful run at the Central Coast Sevens tournament -- Australia’s biggest international domestic Sevens event -- where both the Australian Men’s and Women’s teams took out the titles.
“It was a really great weekend for the whole Sevens program. From the boys' point of view, it was an excellent position for a tournament and to have some really tough rugby, some tough opposition there -- it was a really good stepping stone in preparation for Oceania,” Walsh said.
So impressive were the Men’s team that Walsh has had to make some difficult decisions around selection for Auckland.
What Walsh has got is abundant experience enhanced by players like Foley, Clark, Jenkins and Parahi returning to the team after injury or rest breaks. Jesse Parahi, who has been one of the star players for many years, will be running out with his team mates for the final time in an emotional and determined effort to get them to Rio.
“These boys know what they’re doing now they’re seasoned professionals. They’ve got 30 odd international tournament caps for most of them; they’re three or four year professional players so it’s just about continuing to increase and keeping them believing in physically performing at the right time,” Walsh said.
On the back of a big year for Australian Rugby, the Men's Sevens team will be looking to make a statement of intent for the year ahead.
But for all the talk of expectation, no opposition should ever be underestimated -- especially in the game of Rugby Sevens.