Rugby: Sevens Sistas aim to be No 1

By Melodie Robinson

New Zealand Sevens women Coach Sean Horan. Photo / George Novak
New Zealand Sevens women Coach Sean Horan. Photo / George Novak

Australia are the overwhelming favourites to win gold in the women's sevens, with New Zealand, at best, a lukewarm hope for silver.

Even Canada and England have had better results in the past 16 months than our women, given both have won tournaments on the World Series circuit. The last time New Zealand did a victory lap on the World Series was in April, 2015.

As a former New Zealand women's rugby representative, the lack of results hurts.

It's also puzzling given that our team, who began their campaign overnight (NZT) against Kenya, had been completely dominant for three years from 2012, winning the first three World Series titles and the 2013 Rugby Sevens World Cup in emphatic fashion.

So what's gone wrong? Why has Australia suddenly got the wood on the Kiwis?

Peer under the hood and you will find several reasons.

Firstly, Australia's entire squad have been embedded within a full-time centralised programme in Sydney. The players live and train together. As a result, they are super-tight.

Secondly, in the past 12 months or so, they have had very few injuries and have had the luxury of selecting a consistent side.

Additionally, they also nabbed a coach the Aussie men's team would have loved to have signed up. Tim Walsh has an uncanny knack of identifying talent and designing a style that suits super-fit, quick athletes.

New Zealand's squad, meanwhile, is not centralised. Some players are based in Mt Maunganui with coach Sean Horan but the rest come into the beachside town for camps only. Otherwise they train as groups in their home cities and towns.

They have also had bad luck with injuries to key players.

Added to that, Horan has experimented more, thanks to arguably a larger base of talented players from which to select.

Naturally, there's been uncertainty for some which may have impacted on their form.

Players such as Selica Winiata and Kat Whata Simpkins were certainly surprise omissions after dominating the national scene for the past two years.

Despite all this, I'm picking New Zealand to win gold.

Australia haven't been perfect, losing two tournaments this year. Plus their players tend to get better the longer they play - fit, small jack rabbits who use the space expertly. But fitness might not be as critical with just two games a day instead of three. For that reason, New Zealand have selected quite a different style of athlete to the Aussies.

Portia Woodman, Niall Williams, Kayla McAlister, Theresa Fitzpatrick and Shakira Baker are all big power players. They are the type who can run around and through players or offload in the tackle. Then there's the creativity of Gayle Broughton and Kelly Brazier.

This team can use the space or take it up the middle. The key will be if they can combine the different tactics effectively and accurately. Considering they have been in camp together now for some time, and are settled as a team, I believe it will all come together.

Finally, there's one other important internal step the Kiwis need to take to win gold. The Aussies are super competitive, as all Aussies are.

Even though they wear ribbons in their hair and look like butter wouldn't melt in their mouths, they are also controlled mongrels on the field with an incredible self-belief. For New Zealand to beat them, they need to have even more self-belief.

They can take a leaf out of the book the Black Ferns of 1998-2006 subscribed to. Treat the opposition as the enemy, know you come from a country that is the best in the world at rugby, be unafraid and shoot to kill.

The Black Ferns teams I was in were probably considered arrogant by other nations. But we won everything, and if the "Sevens Sistas" leave the niceties on the sideline for the next few days, they may upset the favourites and make history.

Imagine a whole bunch of Ronda Rouseys throwing a ball around on a rugby field and you get an idea of just how much of a spectacle this will be.

• Melodie Robinson is a former New Zealand women's rugby representative.

- Herald on Sunday

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