The SAS camp that broke - and re-built - the Aussie sevens team

by Iain Payten

In late August the Australian men’s sevens team flew into Brisbane and boarded a bus.

It was day one of their pre-season and a handful knew they were heading to a camp. Most had no idea.

"We kept it hush-hush,” Aussie sevens skipper Lewis Holland said.

"But everyone cottoned on that it was not going to be much fun when we arrived at an army base and they told us to get the f*** off the bus.”

Having organised it with coach Tim Walsh, Holland knew the plan was a three-day boot camp at Enoggera Army Barracks.

But even he had no idea how those three days would unfold. A tame training camp tailored for precious footballers? Nuh-uh.

"They do the same stuff they do with their guys. It was pretty full on,” Holland explains.

"They call it a gateway. Basically it is like what you have to do to get let into the SAS training.

"Essentially they get you to your tipping point and that’s when it really starts. There were some very long nights and some tough activities there that pushed a lot of us mentally.

"But it bound us together, everyone was in it together.”

The Australian sevens team begin their 2018-19 campaign on Friday in Fiji, where they’ll use the Oceania Sevens Championships as a valuable tune-up for the opening of the World Sevens Series in December in Dubai.

After breaking through for a win in the Sydney Sevens - the Aussie men’s first tournament title in six years - Holland’s team is hungry to turn their obvious potential into more consistent success.

And in an Olympic qualifying year, that success will be even more crucial.

The top four finishers in the 10-tournament World Sevens Series automatically book a spot at the Tokyo Olympics, and the rest have to go back and run the gauntlet of regional qualifiers.

The idea to kick off that journey with a gateway camp in the Queensland scrub, explains Holland, came via talks with decorated former SAS solider Ben Roberts-Smith.

The Victoria Cross recipient did leadership work with the Australian sevens team last year and again at the Commonwealth Games in April, where he was recruited as a sevens staff member.

In some down time, the injured Holland struck up a conversation with Roberts-Smith about how the Aussie team could better handle pressure moments.

"I was asking him questions on communications and different other things, for when the shit hits the fan, like: “How do you settle it down? Do you have a breather?” Holland said.

"His response was: ‘No, you have to communicate. If shit is hitting the fan and you want to have a rest, you're going to get overrun'.

"I thought it would be good, in conjunction with Walshy, for us to do something to work on that at the start of the year, where we all go and achieve something together. Pure hard work. Not rugby focussed and out of our norm. After a few discussions and emails it was teed up.”

The Aussie side showed great promise in 2017-18, winning in Sydney, almost winning in Singapore and coming third in New Zealand.

But consistency was a problem, and finishing fifth at the Comm Games and tenth in the World Cup were big disappointments. In crunch games, the Aussies still had a tendency to lose those tiny - and yet massive - moments and the problem of players sometimes going into their shells was identified.

New coach Tim Walsh said at the season’s end that working on mental strength, leadership, resilience and communication under pressure would be priorities.

And that work began as soon as they got the f**k off the bus

"You had to help people in certain areas where they weren’t strong and they helped you in areas you weren’t strong,” Holland said.

"Physically it was good and for the mental strength side it was brilliant. Being able to overcome where you think “okay, this is probably all I have got”. But three hours later you are still putting in effort and you think “alright, I can do that”.

"You learn there are a couple of things that are vital for those tough times.

"One is communication, and trust us huge.

"And then just sometimes it comes down to hard work and grit. It is just how you can connect all them. And then everyone has to be a leader at some point in time.  Someone is going to fail and someone is going to be fatigued, so just having ownership and saying 'righto, it’s on me, this is my team to supply the team with leadership'. That can come through voice, or decision making or effort.

"It was to get everyone talking and to find leaders and to break down a few barriers. We knew people were going to get fatigued and sore and need to ask for help, and blokes were there to pick them up.

"I dare say down the track people will reflect on it, and find some energy or self-belief they might not have thought they had before."

Whether or not those lessons can be turned into strength on a football field is the big question, and the Aussie team will find out when they play their first major tournament of the new season in Fiji.

Unlike last year, when a squad with lots of new faces and rookies needed the time-in-saddle benefits of lots of warm-up tournaments, this year the settled Aussie men have stayed at home and trained hard.

"We were already fit but we put a bit more work into the gym and really honed in what we can control. Pre-season has been good. It has been skill based,” Holland said.

"There were some heavy contact days but it’s just a matter of getting to know each other a lot better on the field. Not necessarily a lot of travel, where you get lay days either side. So we have had a good solid pre-season to prepare.

"We have to get top four so all tournaments from here on in, we have to be 100 per cent and with the best players we have fit at the time.”

The only top-line player missing from the Australian squad in Fiji will be Maurice Longbottom, and former squad members Michael Wells and Nick Malouf are also back in action.

New Zealand and Fiji are also at the two-day tournament.

"Everyone is here to rip in,” Holland said.

The Australian womens team will also be action at the Oceania Sevens, although coach John Manenti has deployed a development team of rising stars from the Aon Uni 7s tournament.


(All games streamed live on the Oceania Facebook page)


v Nauru 10.03am (AEDT)

v Samoa 1.12pm (AEDT)


v Vanuatu 2.15pm (AEDT)

v Cook Islands 5.24pm (AEDT)