Australian sevens star Ben O’Donnell says he is confident his long journey to overnight success can help him guard against the so-called “second season syndrome”.
O’Donnell made his prediction after yet another major recognition of his superb debut World Series season for Australia came his way on Tuesday.
Just days after winning the Shawn McKay award for Australian men’s sevens player of the year, O’Donnell was named as one of three nominees for the World Rugby men’s sevens player of the year.
The 23-year-old from Sydney will vie with Fiji whiz Jerry Tuwai and USA speedster Perry Baker for the crown of the world’s best player, in an award handed out at World Rugby’s glittering function in Monaco in December.
In 15 years, O’Donnell is the first Australian to be nominated for the world’s best men’s sevens player and he was stunned when flicked the news in an email from Aussie sevens manager Scott Bowen on Monday.
“It just said “Congrats BOD” and I didn’t know what it was, so I opened it up and there it was,” O’Donnell said.
“It was pretty humbling to see my name there up against two of the best player in the world. To have my name next to them is pretty special.
“At the start of the year last year I was just stoked to get one cap under my belt so I worked all pre-season to make sure I was on the plane to Dubai, and to keep getting picked each tournament and keep improving my game.
“It came together quite well.”
O’Donnell’s rise to the top of the world sevens tree was both extremely quick, and many years in the making.
The lanky back was a star for Randwick colts but with no professional avenues opening up, he spent a year playing college rugby in the USA and followed that up by playing pro rugby in Spain.
After coming home, O’Donnell joined up with a sevens team at his university in Sydney and after being picked by the Australian Unis team, was spotted by former Aussie coach Andy Friend.
He was drafted into the national squad, but even then he had to wait an entire year on the fringes before being given a debut in December last year.
O’Donnell proved himself not only ready for the step up, but to dominate. He would go on to win the DHL Impact Player of the Round - a prize for the best all-around player - in three of the 10 legs.
“It was a long time coming. It took a few different countries and a few different games, almost, to get me there,” O’Donnell said.
“But it’s all tied in and I don’t regret any of it. They’re all learning experiences that have actually helped me to start my (career) well.”
Coach Tim Walsh said O’Donnell’s nomination was a deserved recognition for the affable back, his teammates and the man who gave him his shot, Friend.
“It’s a tremendous recognition for Ben, but also for the team as well,” Walsh said.
“Ben would say it’s a team effort and it is, but it takes a pretty special individual as well to consistently perform in their first season at the top level as well.
“He’s at an age where he is quite self-aware. He had played a lot of sevens invitational and got a feel for it there. He is a talented athlete and a jack of all trades, master of some.
“For him to be able to put it all together against the world’s best players in his first season is a real credit. He has some good players around him and a good team, and he was obviously managed and coached well by Friendy and coaches from the past.”
Coming after the Shawn McKay award, O’Donnell said it “is always nice to get a pat on the back” but he stressed there was no getting carried away, given the new season starts in December and a gruelling pre-season is underway.
Sport is littered with players who have starred in their first, breakout season but then struggle in their second, as the extra attention weighs a little heavier.
“The old second season syndrome - it doesn’t exist hopefully,” O’Donnell laughed.
“It just comes back to put the work in and you’ll get the reward.
“Hopefully that (career experience) is something will just roll on without having to start against, sort of deal.”
Walsh says O’Donnell can definitely expect extra focus from rivals in the 2018-19 season, but he backed him to handle it.
“There will be added attention to him,” Walsh said.
”Within all teams you have certain players you want to be looking out for, or have certain knowledge about the way they play.
“Obviously Ben burst onto the season and no-one knew anything about him but by the seventh or eight round they had come intel on him.
“There will be a bit of that but he is a very relaxed character and he just loves playing.
“He just loves playing, and that’s hugely important to anything you do. But I don’t think it is going to affect him too much.”
Walsh said the challenge for O’Donnell is to continue growing his game, and the challenge for coaches is to keep unearthing new O’Donnells.
“You want to be constantly challenged and I have no doubt he will accept that, and want to be better,” Walsh said.
“On the other side of things, it does show the depth in Australia.
“He has come to this level via Spain, via the USA, and got his chance.
“There are players out there who just have to get a chancve to perform. Sure, Ben has the talent that is probably one on a few thousand but there are other players who are out there who can do a job for us as well, and they need to be seen and given an opportunity. They’re out there, for sure.”
World Rugby Sevens Men’s Player of the Year
World Rugby Women’s Sevens Player of the Year
World Rugby Men’s Sevens Player of the Year award winners
2017 – Perry Baker (USA)
2016 – Seabelo Senatla (South Africa)
2015 – Werner Kok (South Africa)
2014 – Samisoni Viriviri (Fiji)
2013 – Tim Mikkelson (New Zealand)
2012 – Tomasi Cama (New Zealand)
2011 – Cecil Afrika (South Africa)
2010 – Mikaele Pesamino (Samoa)
2009 – Ollie Phillips (England)
2008 – DJ Forbes (New Zealand)
2007 – Afeleke Pelenise (New Zealand)
2006 – Uale Mai (Samoa)
2005 – Orene Ai’i (New Zealand)
2004 – Simon Amor (England)
Women's Sevens Player of the Year winners
2017 – Michaela Blyde (New Zealand)
2016 – Charlotte Caslick (Australia)
2015 – Portia Woodman (New Zealand)
2014 – Emilee Cherry (Australia)
2013 – Kayla McAlister (New Zealand)