When the Black Ferns Sevens take to the field this season, every move they make will take on a certain level of importance as the side looks towards the Tokyo Olympics.
For the players in the squad, each tournament is another opportunity to make their case for a spot in the squad to contest the Games in late July. Only 12 women are selected for the playing squad at the Games, and injured captain Sarah Hirini told the Herald the nerves that came with trying to earn your place in the squad trumped those of actually competing.
"It's more nervous trying to compete for a spot in the squad and I think that's going to be our biggest challenge – trying to be one of the 12 named," she said.
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Hirini has missed the first two tournaments of the Sevens season due to quad injury which kept her sidelined at the end of last season, will again be watching from home this weekend as her teammates play in Cape Town on the third stop of the year.
Following the Cape Town event this weekend, Hirini will have just over a month to continue her recovery before the next stop of the series in Hamilton – the halfway point of the season. While recovering, she has been watching the team and said the early morning start times had helped her realise just how much she enjoys the game.
"This is one of my first times being at home so I'm struggling getting up at all hours of the night, but it definitely puts it into perspective how much I love the game and how much I miss being out there alongside the girls."
As well as Hirini, a number of players were ruled out due to injury or other unavailability in the 2019 campaign, however they still managed to take out the title. Speaking from Cape Town, co-coach Allan Bunting said to take out the World Series and qualify for the Olympics was part of their long-term plan, but now it was time to fine tune things.
"Each tournament through this year, it's another milestone obviously," he said.
"It's an opportunity to learn and grow. We're working on some things in the background obviously working toward that end point, but it's about gradually growing and getting to a point where you can put your tools down and say we've done everything we possibly can and get a good night's sleep before the Olympics start and let them loose on the field. That's where we want to get, making sure all our players are fit, healthy and happy really."
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Bunting and co-coach Cory Sweeney were named New Zealand coaches of the year at the New Zealand rugby awards on Thursday night, claiming the award after a unique season that saw Bunting take leave for personal reasons and miss the final three events of the year.
Sweeney stepped up in his absence and this season was officially awarded the title of co-coach.
"He does probably most of the work and I just blow a whistle really when I've seen what I need to see," Bunting said of his coaching partner. "We all play a part and it's probably good that we're sharing the load in a big year with a lot of time away from home. Not much has changed to be honest but it's good to have Cory's support there alongside.
"(Being a co-coach) certainly alleviates a bit of weight from your shoulders, but I'm not too sure if there are too many coaches who would like to share that role. My style has always been horizontal leadership; even our players have a big part in what we do and where we go, there's a lot of experience in our players – most of them have been to the Olympics before so they play a big part too.
"It's a shared journey."