How the Australian Sevens side can live up to its ‘Aussie Thunderbolts’ nickname

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Aussie Thunderbolts captain Ed Jenkins wearing the lime kit of the Australian Sevens team (Photo: Australian Rugby)

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To be relegated to the Plate final of the IRB Sevens tournament in Wellington is bad enough for the Australian Sevens team.

But to lose it to Kenya (admittedly a team that often has the number of Australian players) compounds the angst about what is wrong with the SevensRugby program.

In many ways the ARU is doing a lot right with the program.

The team has been re-branded as the ‘Aussie Thunderbolts’ playing in what might be described as shocking lime green colours. This re-branding represents a smart marketing move by the ARU. They now have another  national rugby brand to develop into the iconic status of the Wallaby brand.

The team selected for the Wellington tournament was young, with an average age of 20 (including a 17 year old and a couple of 18 years olds) compared with, say, Kenya’s average age of 25.

This emphasis on youth in the team is the correct approach with a (last) IRB Sevens World Cup in 2013 and then the big one, Rugby Sevens at the 2016 Olympic Games. 

It’s worth pointing out here that Australia, through the victory of the 1908 at the London Olympics is the only southern hemisphere nation to have won an Olympic gold medal for rugby.

Having said that, the statement (in my opinion) is not exactly correct. Australia and New Zealand competed as an entity at the 1908 Olympics, a bit like an antipodean version of Great Britain.

And just as the combined Australia/New Zealand won the Davis Cup in those years, I would argue that as it was a combined Australasian Olympic team in 1908, the gold medal for rugby should be shared with New Zealand.

No matter. The more relevant point in this discussion is that there was a time in the 1980s, when David Campese, Simon Poidevin and the Ella brothers showed the way, that Australia led the way in Sevens Rugby, as New Zealand does now.

The tradition of booing Australian teams at the Hong Kong Sevens was the direct result of successive teams from Down Under thrashing the sides sent out from England.

The ex-pats making a quid in Hong Kong by rolling over the top of the locals in the banking and advertising industries did not take kindly to their men in rugby gear being similarly tramped and thrashed on the often muddy fields of the Sevens tournament.

And over the course of the years the Wallabies were enriched with star players who emerged from the Hong Kong Sevens tournament. The first mention I made of George Gregan, for instance, in one of my rugby columns for the Sydney Morning Herald was to suggest that the slight, diminutive and quick-silver Gregan (who had made a stunning debut in Australian colours) was a future star.

More recently, an equally stunning debut in Australian colours by James O’Connor a couple of years ago at the Hong Kong Sevens elicited from me, in an article I wrote for The Roar, the suggestion that another star, as blazing in talent as the young Campese, had been born.

The most disapppointing aspect of the present Australian Sevens side, the Aussie Thunders, is that there is no one as far as I could observe who is within a bull’s roar as far as rugby genius goes, in the Campese, Ellas, Gregan, O’Connor mould. The mould seems to be broken, at least for the time being.

Pama Fou is a big, young Queensland winger. But he was certainly inferior to Frank Halai, a massive Aucklander who can beat opponents by running around them (as he did to destroy Fiji in the final) or through them as he did as well in the Jonah Lomu manner.

And where were the nifty play-makers that have been the hallmark of Australian rugby from its earliest days?

My suggestion here is that the talent net needs to be thrown much wider than it currently seems to be. Any school, club, academy or Super Rugby franchise or interested rugby fanatic should be asked to throw in names to the ARU and the Sevens management for consideration for the Aussie Thunder.

This is not as fanciful as it might sound. One of the starts of the brilliant New Zealand side, the winners of the tournament, was a provincial player of journeyman status, Mark Jackman. But playing in the centres in his first tournament, Jackman was a revelation. He tackled ferociously, ran strongly, passed brilliantly and in the wet conditions revealed a terrific kicking game.

You can’t tell me there aren’t a number of Jackmans in Australian rugby just itching to get their chance to show off their talents. Too many good players, in my opinion, are being warehoused by the franchises in their academies or back-up sides. They should be released to play Sevens Rugby.

I say this because I am mindful of a conversion I had with one of the greats of Sevens Rugby, Eric Rush. He was instrumental in bringing Lomu into the New Zealand side when he was still as school. Rush told me that a stint or so on the Sevens circuit was an ideal preparation for young, talented players.

They learnt about preparing to be professional in their approach to rugby, on and off the field. On the field, they learnt (or should learn) how to tackle and how to make sound decisions under the most intense pressure imaginable.

I had a feeling, too, in watching the Aussie Thunderbolts that they weren’t as fit, as say their New Zealand counterparts were. The New Zealanders came back from being down 12 – 0 at half-time against England in the semi-final to win in extra time.

I also had the feeling that the Australian coach, Michael O’Connor, might not understand the principles of Seven Rugby as profoundly as, say, the New Zealand master Gordon Tietjens. First and foremost for Tietjens, Sevens is about fitness. He gives his teams ferocious preparations. Are the preparations for Australia as ferocious?

On the field, the New Zealanders play a zone defence. They won’t commit to a tackle until an opposition runner tries to make a bust. Once the tackle is made, they ignore contesting the ruck unless the tackle is dominate. Then they rush and contest as if their lives depend on it.

On attack they keep the ball in hand. They know, or Tietjens has drummed this into them, that the advantage line principle which is so crucial in the 15-a-side game is meaningless in Sevens Rugby. What is crucial on attack is to create space.

The New Zealanders will often pass and run backwards, like a soccer team trying to draw their opponents forwards, before launching a devastating attack from the depth they have created.

The Thunderbolts never did this. They took the ball up, one-off like rugby league players. This lack of ingenuity in attack meant that the runners were easy pickings. They also lacked a play-maker to orchestrate the attacks.

Whether all this means that Michael O’Connor is not up to the job of coaching and selecting the Australian Sevens side is a matter for the ARU to decide. I reckon a session or two when the side is in Australia with David Campese and Mark Ella wouldn’t go astray, for the players and O’Connor.

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Spiro Zavos, a founding writer on The Roar, was long time editorial writer on the Sydney Morning Herald, where he started a rugby column that has run for nearly 30 years. Spiro has written 12 books: fiction, biography, politics and histories of Australian, New Zealand, British and South African rugby. He is regarded as one of the foremost writers on rugby throughout the world.

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