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Opinion

How the Aussies fared in the first Dubai World Rugby Sevens Series

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29th November, 2021
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Congratulations must go to Rugby Australia for sending both teams to Dubai. It would have been easy to put it in the too-hard basket and not send them in the current climate of pandemic.

Winning is an elixir for everything – players are happy, coaches are happy, fans are happy and no doubt head office is happy. There’s also a bit more media interest, with couple of articles in the Daily Telegraph and elsewhere, plus ABC Breakfast News had good coverage and highlights as did Channel Nine.

So what happened in Dubai? The women won and the men came fifth. Both teams did better than what was probably expected considering the turnover of personnel and inexperience of both teams. But kudos to the coaches who got them up and performing so well.

Aussie women sevens
You couldn’t ask for more. They won all of their pool games and then won the final against Fiji.

Their first three games were very clinical, defeating USA, Spain and Brazil. The USA score of 45-5 was a surprise, but the States did have five new players too. The last pool game was hard against France, but they toughed it out 24-22. The French have seriously improved over the last couple of years

The final, in simple terms, was the Charlotte Caslick show. It has been a long while since we have seen such a masterclass. Understandably she was the player of the final. What is interesting is that Caslick doesn’t get credit for her defence and defensive reads. She was equal top in the tackle count in Dubai and she is in fact the top of the World Series all-time tackle count table.

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It also struck me that this seems to have been an easy transition with Demi Hayes taking over as captain.

Watching the women’s matches, with front-foot ball the women can demonstrate some great set plays, including a good old wrap around or two, and across the park the players’ passing seems to have improved significantly. A number of players can throw a long pass.

The calm and experience of both Sharni Williams and Charlotte Caslick led the team, with both achieving milestones of 50 tries and 100 tries respectively. While we all know of Caslick’s skill set, the contribution of Williams cannot be overstated in attack, defence, kicking goals and kicking restarts. She actually looks almost faster this year.

Demi Hayes, Dom Du Toit and Lily Dick, as hoped for, all stepped up. In particular Du Toit was very good – she has been around for a while and is hitting her straps. The newish combination of Caslick and Madison Ashby in the halves worked well.

The Australian defence was outstanding. In recent times the women have been pushed around a bit in the tackle and at the ruck. While they are not the biggest, they can sure put on a few shots. There was a great combined tackle between Ashby and Alysia Lefau-Fakaosilea against Brazil that resulted in a dropped ball and a try to Australia. It made a highlight on the World rugby sevens Twitter account.

Of note is Lefau-Fakaosilea, who at only 21 and not that big but really seems to enjoy the contact when she has ball in hand and in defence. You can see her becoming a bit of an enforcer; she definitely does not lack confidence on the field.

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Finally, congratulations to John Manenti. It has been tough since the Olympics, having to reapply for the coaching job. I’m not sure whether there have been any changes in the tactics, but Manenti really pulled the right strings in Dubai. In particular he seems to have really worked out the right combinations and also bench substitutions.

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Aussie men’s sevens
The men’s squad revealed some hidden gems in their playing stocks. As for the tournament, they reached the quarter-finals, which was probably the pass mark. They played six games, lost to two juggernauts in South Africa and to Fiji (after the bell) and finished fifth overall.

Nick Malouf, Henry Hutchinson and Maurice Longbottom did their jobs as the experienced and calm heads, as did surprise inclusion Billy Meakes, the former Rebel and current LA Giltinis player. Unfortunately Longbottom was injured in a pool game against France and was out for the rest of the tournament, costing the side some attacking structure.

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Seven players in this square were 22 or under – Billy Meakes joked that Ben Dowling was 12 years below him at school. Coach Tim Walsh indicated that some of the youngsters were part of the Olympic development program, with some coming from the Waratahs and Brumbies academies.

Who stood out among the youngsters? As mentioned previously, Dietrich Roache has a lot going for him, is only 20 years old and has been to the Olympics. A player with a lot of speed and step is Corey Toole, who Laurie Fisher gave a shout-out on social media. Bend Dowling was also impressive. These youngsters did not look overawed. They played above expectation for a first hit-out and will only improve.

You would have to say overall the men did well considering they would not have had any real match practice to develop combinations.

For both the men and women the World Series calendar set-up of two back-to-back Dubai tournaments, then in January the same with back-to-back tournaments in Spain, is a real blessing. It will be critical in the development of the players and team combinations.

Good luck to both teams later this week at Dubai 2.0, where there will be fans in the stands too.

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