Close but still out of reach: Aussie men searching for success

Mens - Sydney
by Iain Payten

A year is a long time in rugby but given time can stand still in sevens, a year probably feels more like a lifetime.

The raw joy on top of the Sydney7s podium in 2018 no doubt felt like a lifetime ago for the Australian men's sevens team on Sunday, after another frustrating tournament saw them turn in glimpses of world-class form, high-cost mistakes and a sixth-placed ribbon.

After a stirring win over South Africa on Saturday put them into the finals, day three saw Australia push Fiji hard – but lose by five – before edging out France. By three.

They then – with only nine fit men - led South Africa in the fifth-placed final for all but the last three seconds. And lost it. By two.

It was a gutsy effort without a single fit playmaker on the field, but also served as a painfully neat summary of Australia’s men’s sevens team’s fortunes over much of the last year: damn close but still out of reach.

“It was always going to be a tough ask going out with nine players, Lewi (Holland) was never going to come on,” Aussie veteran Jesse Parahi said post-game.

“We fought hard and unfortunately, it’s just a bitter way to go out to be honest. It’s the Sydney Sevens, we had the opportunity to play in front of our families and our fans. The boys went out there and did their best but it’s still disappointing.

“That’s the been the story of our season so far, and we need to be a lot better than we are doing at the moment.”

The Aussie men were jubilant after the Cup final. Photo; WalmsleyMissing Lewis Holland, Maurice Longbottom, Josh Coward and Ben O'Donnell, Australia couldn’t have battled any harder in their last game and they played themselves to a standstill in a brutal encounter.

But where other top teams can find the gear to grind out a win, Tim Walsh’s Aussie side more often find themselves on the wrong side of an untimely missed tackle or turnover.

And in sevens, that mistake can be the difference between competing for a podium spot and scrapping for minor points.

“At our best, we are competing with the world’s best. When we are not on our game, we are down competing for sixth, seventh and eighth,” Walsh said.

“That’s a mental thing. The ability to hold consistency, and grind out wins when you don’t feel like it, and play when you have injuries and when you’re a bit down.

“It’s that mental side, at our best we are up there and we should be on the podium. It’s about finding the mental toughness and resilience to have that consistency.”

There hasn’t been a huge turnover since the Sydney Sevens win last year, and a good run of form that saw Australia finish third in Hamilton and second in Singapore.

The change of coach from Andy Friend to Walsh occurred in that period. And the few players that depart have been the hardest to lose: wise old veterans.

In a squad that contains plenty of young talent, the calming composure of grizzled veterans is sorely missing and James Stannard’s absence is clear as day. So too Ed Jenkins, and Parahi has had been in and out with injuries.

To fill the void, Walsh brought back Nick Malouf (who has been outstanding) and recruited Michael Wells, and put Stephen Hoiles on his staff to provide the voice of an experienced ex-player.

Classic Wallabies like Rob Horne have been on tour as well.

“If you don’t make mistakes, you probably won’t learn,” Walsh said.

“But there is a time for enough mistakes, and you have to take those learnings. It’s Einstein’s theory of insanity, if you do the same thing over and over again and expect a different result. We are working on things to try and change that mindset.”

There are 18 months before the Tokyo Olympics and Australia’s hopes of automatically qualifying by finishing in the top four at the end of the World Series are slowly drifting.

Australians now sit in sixth, nine points behind South Africa in fourth place. If they miss automatic qualification, Australia would have to go through an Oceania playoff in December.

Parahi is confident the Australian team can click.

💥 @nickmalouf brings the boom! #Sydney7s

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“We have the players, we have the plays but we are going up and down, and we need to be more consistent,” he said.

“The mental side of rugby is under-rated. The teams that do that do it well, they’re right on top of that stuff and we definitely are getting there. We are putting a lot of work into it. We will get there but we just need to do it a lot quicker.”