MELBOURNE : The Wallabies' two World Cup wins have long stood as Australia's proudest achievements in rugby, but the nation's dominant women's sevens team hope to set a new benchmark by winning gold at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics. The team captured Australia's first World Series title on Sunday, finishing runner-up in the final event in the French university town of Clermont-Ferrand.
Plaudits have come thick and fast from sports-mad Australia, with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull among the fans offering congratulations through social media. The win might have seemed a good enough excuse to open a few bottles of choice French wine, but with the Olympics on the horizon the players opted to toast their win over a sober breakfast of crepes in a central Clermont-Ferrand cafe.
"No sore heads," head coach Tim Walsh told Reuters in a telephone interview. When it was 100 days to go to Rio, all the girls made a little pact on how to prepare. We've been going on for three years now, we don't want to be wasting days, whether through not eating right or just not looking after the --.
"And after the sevens tournament, everyone's just so wrecked. Australia's men have long been one of the world's major powers in the 15-man game, winning the 1991 and 1999 World Cups and reaching the final of last year's tournament in England. In sevens, however, it is the country's women who are the gold standard and offer a far greater hope of a medal when the format makes its Olympic debut at Rio.
ROLE MODELS Mounting the podium at the end of the three-day tournament at Deodoro Stadium would be a great reward for a team and staff who have worked tirelessly over the past three years, Walsh said. But more importantly, it would inspire a generation of girls in Australia and change the way people perceive female athletes. These girls are pioneering," said 37-year-old Walsh, a former flyhalf for the top-flight Queensland Reds in Super Rugby. They really are fantastic role models. This result and the Olympics is a catalyst to driving the game. The girls, the staff and the whole programme is about re-branding women's rugby. These girls are elite Olympians, they're full-time athletes, physically fit, they travel the world, they play a contact sport which isn't associated with women too much. Apart from winning three out of the five World Series events, the team also ended New Zealand's three-year reign as champions, delighting a nation whose men have long been shaded by the All Blacks in the traditional format. The women have been well-supported by the Australian Rugby Union, which battles to prop up cash-strapped professional teams in Super Rugby but has been able to lavish resources on the sevens programmes due to extra government funding made available for Olympic sports. A medal in Rio would help ensure the game's future and Walsh said his team had developed a winning mentality which would put them well within reach of that goal. One of the important factors for athletes as well is not just the competition but to have the winning experience as well," he said. In the team now, there are some girls who have been involved in all six of our tournaments. Really, the whole squad now has had some winning experience. Walsh also said he hoped world rugby would look to bridge the gap between the men's and women's series. The are five women's events on the calendar, half the number for the men, and the series ran separately barring a joint tournament at the Dubai opener last December. Walsh said the women's tournament deserved to share the billing with the men's and have an equal number of events. Again, it's about cracking that identity of women in rugby," he said.
"We're well on the front foot to projecting a new identity.