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

Spiro Zavos Columnist

By Spiro Zavos, Spiro Zavos is a Roar Expert

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    Ed Jenkins will lead the Australian men's Sevens side into the tournament at Dubai (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.

    Spiro Zavos
    Spiro Zavos

    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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    The Crowd Says (42)

    • Roar Guru

      February 6th 2012 @ 10:31am
      Rickety Knees said | February 6th 2012 @ 10:31am | ! Report

      The reality is that the current structure is clearly not working – great post Sharminator!

      We have 4 years to get our 7s act together before the Olympics. The ARU is to be commended for the excellent initiatives that are being put in place at the school level, it now needs to look at getting the best systems and structures in place so as to best maxinmise the 7s pot of gold that has been delivered to it.

    • February 6th 2012 @ 11:00am
      Fog said | February 6th 2012 @ 11:00am | ! Report

      The NZ sevens team’s best players are not necessarily stars in 15s, specially since the world circuit was initiated. The best sevens players are often lower ranked NPC players like the current captain DJ Forbes. Frank Halai who starred in Wellington on Saturday has not yet secured a starting spot in NPC rugby and, at the age of 23, he may never do so.

      The profile of sevens rugby in NZ has only really been high since the Wellington tournament became the country’s largest fancy dress party and, while the rugby is essential to the day, it still plays second fiddle to the party.

      • February 6th 2012 @ 3:06pm
        allblackfan said | February 6th 2012 @ 3:06pm | ! Report

        Sevens has a fairly high profile in NZ mainly because it’s in the offseason.
        In the old days, the likes of Zinzan Brooke, Wayne Shelford, Jonah Lomu and even George Gregan make their national debuts in Sevens.
        Sevens is for identifying upcoming stars, blokes like Victor Vitor have been able to make the transition although now the preference is for fulltime contracts Sevens players.

    • February 6th 2012 @ 11:11am
      Harry said | February 6th 2012 @ 11:11am | ! Report

      Quite a few fringe Super Rugby players* have done reasonably well at 7’s over the last few years however with Australian playing depth stretched with the Rebels coming on board (joining the Force as having no real base in their home state) then it means these guys are in Super Rugby squads rather than the Thunderbolts or whatever the 7’s teams called.
      * Kahui, Morahan, Foley, Gill, Stannard come quickly to mind. Someone like Kahui could perhaps have filled the role of 7’s captain as their primary rugby career – as pointed out above NZ have such a player, DJ Forbes.

      • February 6th 2012 @ 8:38pm
        jeznez said | February 6th 2012 @ 8:38pm | ! Report

        Who is this Kahui you speak of – I’m familiar with the All Black but not of an Aussie up and comer of that name.

        • February 7th 2012 @ 1:44pm
          Harry said | February 7th 2012 @ 1:44pm | ! Report

          Fair question – Was referring to Richard Kingi. Coffee hadn’t kicked in. Anyway thought the bloke looked a natural 7’s player rather than a Super Rugby player.

    • February 6th 2012 @ 11:38am
      peterlala said | February 6th 2012 @ 11:38am | ! Report

      How funny. Australian and New Zealand compete together, like the Lions, except downunder the team is called Australia.

      • Roar Rookie

        February 6th 2012 @ 12:11pm
        Sharminator said | February 6th 2012 @ 12:11pm | ! Report

        I was wondering about that … Ive read several times about the Australian team that won the Olympics .. and never heard any mention of the team being a joing team with New Zealand … wishful thinking de Spiro methinks ..

    • February 6th 2012 @ 11:58am
      Sean Fagan said | February 6th 2012 @ 11:58am | ! Report

      Cute try Spiro! Trying to have NZ equal holder of the 1908 Olympics medal for rugby!

      There is no doubt that the rugby team were the Wallabies & there were no NZrs in the team.

      If we take your line, it was Australasia aka combined NZ/Australia playing for the rugby medal, and Australasia was thus represented by the Australian team….then by that coin flipped over, if the Cornwall team that represented England & Gt Britain that day had won, then not only England, but the other home nations could have laid claim to the gold medal – maybe the British Lions too!

      I have a vague recollection that despite Gt Britain entering the Olympics in 1908, each of the Home Nations was individually invited to enter a team, as were Australia, NZ and Sth Africa. Of course, the Wallabies only accepted their invite as they were to be touring UK at the time. SA & NZ were not going to send a team that distance to enter, and if the Wallabies weren’t in UK, there still wouldn’t have been a combined ‘Australasia’ team formed & sent on a 6 week boat journey.

      Ingenious try though Spiro!

      • February 6th 2012 @ 12:09pm
        Jaceman said | February 6th 2012 @ 12:09pm | ! Report

        We dont have enough quality Rugby players to field 5 Super 15 teams and a quality Sevens team. Something has to give and maybe encouraging some young Leaguies by letting their teams enter schools 7 a side comps on the way up with a chance to tour the world is the best incentive. I dont know how the World Sevens works but touring the world would put a strain on study and family so maybe a colts team is the best idea…

      • February 7th 2012 @ 7:02pm
        JohnB said | February 7th 2012 @ 7:02pm | ! Report

        He’s right about the Davis Cup though – from memory (so if either name is wrong, apologies) Australian Norman Brookes and Kiwi Anthony Wilding won it several times in the early 1900s competing as Australasia.

    • February 6th 2012 @ 12:19pm
      SAMURAI said | February 6th 2012 @ 12:19pm | ! Report

      The Australian team doesn’t have a sense of stability, every year half a dozen players come in and another half-dozen are released.

      A full-time professional side (Like the Springboks) might be the solution, but again the question of depth…

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