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SPIRO: Where is the ARU plan to win Sevens Olympic gold in Rio?

Quade Cooper has made himself available for the Australian Sevens side. (AFP PHOTO / Michael Bradley)
Expert
29th November, 2015
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3975 Reads

There was a time when the Australian Sevens team was routinely booed, because with players like David Campese, Mark Ella and all the other Ellas, Australian sides were just too good for their opposition in most of the tournaments.

Call it the Richie McCaw factor. Booing was a compliment to that line of Australian Sevens sides that played so splendidly, so often, at Hong Kong.

» Olympic rugby sevens – men’s schedule
» Olympic rugby sevens – women’s schedule

But now, several decades after those great days, there is no booing for the Australians, only a sort of boredom at their general hard-working standard of play

We are going into a year where Sevens Rugby offers an Olympic gold medal for the national side, but there is no indication that the ARU board and chief executive have any plan to achieve this result.

There was a time, but not now unfortunately, when the Sevens squads – even after the era of the Ellas and Campo – turned up wonderfully gifted youngsters destined to have great careers later on as Wallabies.

I remember predicting that an unknown halfback from Canberra who astonished us all at a Hong Kong Sevens tournament would go on to have a terrific career for the Wallabies.

That halfback was George Gregan.

Some years later, another youngster played with such freakish brilliance at another Hong Kong Sevens tournament that the predictions of a fabulous Wallaby career were obvious and inevitable.

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That player was James O’Connor.

Since then about the only outstanding Wallaby who has come through the Sevens ranks, essentially, has been Bernard Foley.

Why isn’t Australian rugby producing the young players who start off making their name as Sevens players and then translate the experiences and lessons, learnt on and off the field, in the shorter form of the game to the 15-man game?

On Friday, the ARU named the national Sevens side to play the opening round of the 2015-16 World Rugby Sevens Series this weekend at Dubai.

The three new players in the squad are Wallaby winger Henry Speight, Sydney flier Tom Kingston, and the ‘rugged’ South African Stephan van der Walt (you only need Australian citizenship to be eligible for Olympic selection).

Most rugby followers are familiar with Speight and Kingston. Both are wingers and occasional centres who are quick and, especially in the case of Speight, tough enough to play as a forward in the Sevens game.

Scott Bowen, the Australian men’s Sevens interim (!) coach, told The Australian that Speight might be moved into the forwards later on, saying, “He’ll play some time on the wing, but I would imagine he would also spend some time at centre, looking forward to Rio, it’s probably not out of the question that he could end up playing that hybrid forward role, a quicker back who packs down as a prop.”

The problem here is that Speight is only going to play four of the 10 world series tournaments before Rio. The majority of his playing time will be for the Brumbies.

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This suggests that Bowen should throw Speight into the forwards at Dubai and continue with this experiment at the other three world series tournaments so that at Rio the winger/prop will have had some extended game time in his new Sevens position.

There is also an element of a bet each way with the Speight deal. He really should be playing at least seven world series tournaments before Rio, as the All Blacks coming across – Sonny Bill Williams, Liam Messam and Augustine Palu – are going to do.

Van der Walt seems to be a similar case to Speight. He joined the Brumbies as a biggish winger (192 centimetres, 98kilograms) for the 2013 season. His impact there has been minimal. Now he has a chance to establish his Sevens credentials.

The rest of the squad for the Dubai tournament are experienced players, with the captain Ed Jenkins and star centre Cameron Clark (the son of Greg Clark, the excellent rugby caller) as the outstanding performers in the side.

Cameron Clark, with his ever-smiling face, speed and athleticism, reminds me of an Australian Bobby Skinstad, a throwback to the days when players had fun on a rugby field and transmitted that fun to the spectators with their spectacular play.

The Australian squad goes to Dubai having won the Oceania Regional Olympic Qualifier in Auckland two weeks ago without conceding a try in any of their wins.

Last year the Australians were the Dubai tournament runners-up to a rampant South African side. They subsequently finished fifth in the world series, 14 points behind England, and had to qualify for the Rio Olympics.

On the face of it, the squad that had a lacklustre season in 2014 is not strengthened significantly for this Olympic year.

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This raises the issue of Quade Cooper, alas.

Cooper’s French club has agreed, following some pressure from the player and the ARU, to release him to play for Australia at Rio.

The previous interim coach to Bowen, Tim Walsh, told The Australian at the time of the Toulon concession that Cooper should not be an automatic selection for Rio, saying, “You can’t just be a good kicker or passer. You have to be able to tackle, to ruck, to counter-ruck, make good decisions, pass at pace left and right.

“Everyone has to be able to do it. Quade no doubt can do all that. It’s just can he prove he can do it in that amount of time, and can whoever the coach is give him the confidence he is the man for the job?”

The tone of the comments suggest that Walsh is not at all confident that Cooper is the answer to the Australian problem of lacking a gifted playmaker.

At the time of these comments, too, the thought was that Toulon would be reluctant to allow their star recruit too much time away. But the disastrous (for Cooper and Toulon) match against Wasps, where Cooper missed numerous tackles, made no breaks and missed passes like a talentless novice, could encourage Toulon to get him off their books and into the Australian Sevens side as soon as possible.

There was a time when Cooper could have been a Sevens player at the same level as Mark Ella. That time is well gone. His tackling has become deplorable, he has lost his speed, and now his passing game seems to be breaking down.

The ARU should make it public that even though Cooper might want to play for the Sevens side at Rio, he is not wanted.

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Eric Rush, arguably one of the greats of Sevens Rugby, told me once that Sevens is essentially a tackling game. Cooper’s tackling, even at its least worst, has never been a strong suit in his game.

The ARU should forget about Cooper; if they are successful in snaring him for Rio, the Quade Project will end in tears.

Instead, the ARU need to get a full-time, long-term coach. They can’t hope to go to Rio with a series of interim coaches. If Bowen is deemed to be the man and he wants the job, then give it to him. Or else come to a quick decision about who should be the full-time coach.

And I would offer an lucrative short-term contract up to Rio for someone like Mark Ella or David Campese, both gurus in Sevens Rugby, to be the strategic brain and selector for the Australian side going into the Olympic tournament.

Once again, the lack of gumption by the ARU in appointing a full-time coach points to a fatal lack of real rugby nous with its CEO, Bill Pulver.

Sevens Rugby is not as chopped down version of the 15-man game. It is a specific sport in its own right, within the rugby genre. The Australian Sevens side needs a full-time, permanent (at least until Rio) coach right now.

One of the truths of Sevens rugby is that it is much easier for good players to switch successfully to the 15-man game than from the 15-man game.

Of the 620 player in the initial squads for the 2015 Rugby World Cup, 135 had a Sevens background. Interestingly, this number is down from the 160 former Sevens players at the 2011 tournament.

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The greatest of all the Sevens coaches, Sir Gordon Tietjens, has insisted that any of the 15-a-side players have to play, as a minimum, four tournaments. Messam and SBW are going to be full-time Sevens players this year.

DJ Forbes, the long-time New Zealand Sevens captain, has stood down from the captaincy to concentrate on actually making the side for Rio. Scott Curry, a faster version of Ed Jenkins, will captain the New Zealand side in the prop/winger position.

Typically, too, Tietjens is stealing a march on other teams by taking a 14-man squad to Dubai, rather than the 12-man squad that Australia is taking. Tietjens wants to have the maximum amount of time with players who could make the Rio squad. They will be exposed to his relentless, demanding fitness regimes.

The 14 players, too, will enable him to play to train with two complete Sevens team which will create, he insists, “more competition” within the squad.

About Pulu, a newcomer to Sevens Rugby but an All Black last year, Tietjens says, “He’s come on in leaps and bounds in the time he has been with us… He’s got very good vision. He’s quick off the mark… He’s going to keep teams honest and he’s very strong and physical.”

Notice the difference between this sort of specific assessment and the lack of a similar sort of assessment about Henry Speight in the ARU’s media release about its team at Dubai: “The team is looking sharp and the players are fit and raring to go…. We have three debutants keen to make their mark…”

Two other Tietjens initiatives are in play at Dubai as well. Sonny Bill Williams will be with the team “as a learning experience”.

And last Wednesday in a media release the New Zealand Rugby Union stated, “Sevens maestro Tomasi Cama takes on a pivotal new off-field role… The star playmaker will deliver performance analysis services to the All Blacks Sevens and New Zealand Women’s seven coaches and players.”

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Cama will also be part of the New Zealand coaching contingent for the women’s and men’s squads at Dubai.

Bill Pulver should be ashamed of his lack of support for the Australian sevens squads, women and men.

As the legendary Chinese warrior Sun Tzu is supposed to have said, “The battle is won before it is fought.”

Battles are won as much by the planning that goes in before as on the actual field of conflict.

We are seeing the sort of planning from the NZRU that helped win back-to-back Rugby World Cup tournaments being invested in the chase for Rio gold.

But where is the planning for Rio gold from the ARU?