Mens 7s pleasing Michael O'Connor
October 8, 2013
Lewis Holland is one of the stars of Australia's Sevens team © Getty Images
Australia prepare to host the opening round of the 2013-2014 HSBC Sevens World Series on the Gold Coast with coach Michael O'Connor believing his side is "in really good shape".
The Aussie Thunderbolts endured a tough time last season, with O'Connor saying "we were annihilated with injuries". But the coach, as a result, blooded a number of young players and "we now have 19 and 20-year-olds and they've got 10 tournaments under their belt"; after going to Dubai and South Africa last year with players who "weren't really ready to play at that level", after injuries on the Gold Coast, that's a good place to be.
O'Connor and his players reaped the benefit of that increased experience in the final round of the 2012-2013 Sevens series in London, where they reached their first Cup final of the campaign. They were disappointed to lose to New Zealand in the decider, but still their place in the final, having defeated England in the semi-finals, marked continued improvement after finishing third in Japan and winning two Bowl finals, one Plate final and one Shield final earlier in the season.
Ed Jenkins and Australia won the 2011 Tokyo title © Getty Images
Australia captain Ed Jenkins, who returned to the side in London having missed seven rounds after a serious shoulder injury on the Gold Coast 12 months ago, accepts the team under-performed in last season, said inexperienced players introduced through the year ,come the back end of the season, were "finding their feet and knew what Sevens was all about".
"We've got a good core group of players with Sevens experience under their belt," Jenkins says, while O'Connor tells ESPNscrum that his side "would love to win our home title for the first time since 2002".
"The work that we've done, we'll start to see fruition from that," O'Connor added. "We've taken 17 and 18-year-olds and we're starting to hold on to them, and we're starting to get continuity, understanding and experience. We're in great shape going forward to 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow and to the Olympics in 2016."
Key to that shape, and to the continued improvement of the team, is the Australian Rugby Union's adoption of a centralised training program and development squad similar to that which has produced results for South Africa and the United States. "It's becoming more coordinated," O'Connor says of the programme. "One of the problems for us here in Australia is the tyranny of distance. It's a team sports and we have players in Melbourne, Canberra, Sydney and Brisbane … camps are good … but it's a team sport and you need to be able to train together regularly. We're doing a lot more of that. We're heading towards that centralised model that other countries such as America and South Africa have adopted, and that'll help us move forward."
O'Connor saw tangible rewards of that programme when a rookie development squad performed well to finish third in the Oceania Sevens Championship in Fiji, where they played having participated alongside the Gold Coast Sevens squad in a preparation camp at Narrabeen in Sydney.
Alex Gibbon and Australia's development players performed well in Fiji © Sean Wong
The development squad features "second-tier players who haven't played together in a team", O'Connor says. "Players we've had a look at and we like what we see; it's all well and good to train them up in Sevens but to actually get some playing time is a great opportunity."
Heading to the Gold Coast, Jenkins and O'Connor acknowledge the Thunderbolts face a tough task to progress from a pool featuring Samoa, Argentina and Scotland. "But have a look at the other pools," O'Connor says, explaining that Sevens tournaments in general now are stronger than ever before as lower-tier unions have invested to develop competitive sides on the road towards the 2016 Olympic Games.
Shannon Walker is a speed machine for the Thunderbolts © Getty Images
"The teams from six to 12 have really improved," O'Connor said. Such is the level of improvement, O'Connor says his squad must improve simply to stand still; and he says he, and rugby itself, is under increasing pressure from rugby league to attract fresh talent
"The amount of money they've been able to allocate under this new TV deal to the second tier of their salary cap, and signing new players, it's very competitive to get young players," O'Connor says of rugby league's threat to union's development. "But we've got a very good school system and we've got good people involved in Australian rugby, and we are still getting good players. I think the future is very good. We've got a very good crop of young players coming through."
Sean McMahon is on the fast track to stardom, Michael O'Connor told ESPNscrum © Getty Images
O'Connor nominates Sean McMahon as one of the young stars to watch, having debuted on the Gold Coast in 2012 and playing at every stop of the World Series. "He's 19 now. He's played in a World Cup. He's signed with Melbourne Rebels for next year. He's a real talent. He's the sort of player you'll see in a Wallabies jersey in the next couple of years."
Jenkins says that he and his team-mates are "well and truly focused on what we want to do" in Queensland.
"You can always count on a big physical performance from the Samoans," he added. "Argentina, they're very competitive; and Scotland, they've been improving and that's going to be a hard match.
"But definitely we want to be aiming for the Cup final on home soil; we've already looked at our crossovers, and that's Kenya or NZ so it doesn't get any easier."
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The latest Week in Pictures takes in all the action from the weekend when rugby united behind Samoa