The Australian Youth Olympic Team has been bolstered by the selection of an impressive women’s Rugby Sevens outfit.
Australia’s only female team at the 2014 Youth Olympic Games is spearheaded by national Sevens squad members, Brooke Anderson and Tiana Penitani, the latter being named captain.
“I’m thrilled to be named in the Australian Youth Team. It was one of my biggest goals this year to fulfil and I've worked very hard to get here,” 18-year-old Penitani said.
In 2013, Penitani and Anderson won gold at the Australian Youth Olympic Festival (AYOF) and were then fast tracked into the Women’s Sevens squad.
Penitani became the youngest player to represent Australia in a Rugby World Cup in either the 15s or 7s format in June 2013, before succumbing to a knee injury that has kept her off the park.
“I haven't yet fully recovered from my injury but I'm very close,” the Maroubra Women’s Rugby Club star admitted.
“I want to make sure everything is right before I make my comeback. I haven't played a full game to know where I stand with match fitness, but I feel fit and strong thanks to my rehab program.”
As Youth Olympic sevens coach Scott Bowen explained: “This is a great opportunity for Tiana to get back playing after her injury.”
“Tiana is a natural leader, already knows what it is like to compete at the top level of rugby sevens and should be a source of inspiration for her teammates.”
Now Penitani has an important role in a 12-woman Australian side that will contest the inaugural Youth Olympic Games Rugby Sevens tournament in Nanjing, China this August.
“I’m used to always looking up to older and more experienced players, so to have the opportunity to be a role model for the girls in this team is an honour and I'll use my experience to lead them the best way I can,” Penitani said.
At one end of the spectrum are 18-year-olds Penitani, Anderson, and fellow AYOF gold medal winner, Eva Karpani; at the other end are 16-year-olds Raecene McGregor and Amber Pilley.
“I’ve always wanted to play for Australia in every sport I play, but I have been striving these last few months to get selected for rugby sevens,” McGregor emphasised.
“I think it will be a good experience seeing new cultures and meeting new people and also playing with girls I usually don’t play with,” the newcomer said.
The girls bring an array of talent to the Games, with many having experience in track and field, OzTag and touch football before converting to rugby.
McGregor, who hails from Maroubra Women’s Rugby Club like Penitani, has also played soccer for Australia, while 17-year-old Caitlin Moran has played in the National Indigenous Rugby Sevens Team.
There are plenty of speedsters and hard hitters new to the green and gold. Naturally, a few were “scared to tackle” at first- like Zimbabwe-born Dominique Du Toit, but come August, Australia will be a fortified contender for the first ever Youth Olympic Games rugby sevens medals.
“It’s a well-balance squad,” coach Bowen said.
“We’re strong and physical up front and have outstanding talent in the back line. Add a couple of players who already have experience playing international Rugby Sevens like Tiana [Penitani] and Brooke [Anderson] and it makes for an exciting side.”
The significance of the Youth Olympic Games is not lost on the Australian Rugby Union, who recognises the path to Rio 2016 is well underway.
When Rugby Sevens makes its debut in Rio, chances are some of these Youth Olympians will be back on the park.
“This is a massive opportunity for a number of girls to make their mark on rugby sevens at international level – at the moment, a lot of them are extremely raw – but that can bring excitement too,” Bowen said.
“The Youth Olympic Games is a chance for them to stake a claim to be included in our national Women’s Sevens squad. When we are thinking about which players we will contract for next year, we will look back at how some the girls performed at the Games. How they behave, how they interact in a tournament environment.”
The 2013 AYOF catapulted Anderson, Penitani and Charlotte Caslick onto the World Series stage, and with two years to the Rio Games, this is an almighty opportunity for another crop of teenagers.
But first there is a job to do in Nanjing.
“When we play, we go there to win. And Nanjing is no different,” Bowen said.
“Ultimately, we want the girls to be challenged and tested, which we hope will add depth to the Rugby Sevens talent pool we already have in Australia as head towards Rio, the 2018 Commonwealth Games and the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.”
The Rugby Sevens tournament in Nanjing begins on 17th August and Australia will be represented in the women’s event only. Scott Bowen's side will be up against Canada, USA, Tunisia, Spain and China.
At the Youth Olympic Games, nations can only enter one male and one female team across all team events and Australia has qualified a male Hockey 5s side.
The 2014 Australian Youth Olympic Team, announced by the 2013/14 IRB Women's Sevens World Series Player of the Year Emilee Cherry in Sydney today:
Tiana Penitani - captain, 18 years old Matraville NSW
Brooke Anderson, 18, Brighton Le Sands NSW
Marioulla Belessis, 17, Highgate Hill QLD
Shenae Ciesiolka, 16 (17 at Games), Westbrook QLD / Belmont NSW
Dominique Du Toit, 17, Highfields QLD
Kellie-Marie Gibson, 17 (18 at Games), Ellenbrook WA
Eva Karpani, 17 (18 at Games), Hackham West SA
Raecene McGregor, 16, Yagoona NSW
caitlin Moran, 17, Cardiff South NSW
Amber Pilley, 16, Tugun QLD
Mackenzie Sadler, 17, Kensington Park SA
Laura Waldie, 16 (17 at Games), Camp Hill QLD