Smells like Teen Spirit: Young guns challenging Rio veterans ahead of Tokyo campaign

Womens - Dubai
by Iain Payten

They’re the teenage girls inspired to play rugby by Australia’s sevens gold medal win in Rio, and now they’re not only among their idols, they could be the key to the Aussie women defending their Olympic crown in Tokyo in 2020.

Australian women’s coach John Manenti on Thursday named another two 18-year-old debutants - Georgia Hannaway and Faith Nathan - in his squad for the upcoming World Sevens Series round two in Dubai (December 5-6).

The call-ups have come for mixed reasons, with Charlotte Caslick a late withdrawal due to a hamstring injury suffered at training on Wednesday; adding the superstar playmaker to a list of eight players unavailable through injury or, in the case of Emilee Cherry, recent motherhood.

But the additions of Hannaway and Nathan are also part of the undeniable surge of a very fresh-faced Generation Next in Australian women’s sevens, most of whom were motivated to take up the game seriously by watching the likes of Caslick, Cherry and Ellia Green win gold on that memorable day in 2016.

The debutant pair, who starred in the AON Uni 7s series and in Australia’s recent win at the Oceania Sevens, won’t even be the only 18-year-olds in the 12-woman squad.

Fellow 18-year-olds Sariah Paki and Maddison Higgins-Ashby are already capped and also on the plane to Dubai as well, and the likes of Jakiya Whitfield (18) and Alysia Lefau-Fakaosilea (19) are also knocking on the door in the wider squad.

Even the comparatively ‘experienced’ Australian players like Lily Dick, Page McGregor and Rhiannon Byers are still only 20.

It is a sign of a functioning pathway system in Australian women’s sevens - most have been playing AON Uni 7s since it began in 2017 - but the surge of talented kids has come at a good time for Manenti, and for an increasingly nervous old guard of Rio gold medallists.

Just as it is near-impossible to win back-to-back Rugby World Cups without refreshing players and evolving tactics, Manenti has made it clear to his team that they can’t win back-to-back gold medals by relying on the Rio formula.

And while he is prepared to show plenty of loyalty to those veterans who won in 2016, there will also be new blood in Tokyo and the impact of all those teenagers vying for those spots is having wide-reaching benefits.  

"It makes it difficult (in selecting an Olympic team) but I want it to be difficult. I don’t want to have a situation where it is easy for me to pick 10-12 players because I don’t have any competition,” Manenti said.

"What I have seen over the last few months is a realisation to the senior girls that these kids aren’t just here to make up the numbers; that they’re here to play and they want spots. 

"And we are seeing it at training, we are seeing at the gym, we are seeing with their running, their repeat speeds - it is just consistent. And they’re not going away.

"You can’t buy experience and you can’t replace the experience that those (Rio) girls have got but we are now in a position where we are pushing them. And I don’t think they probably thought they were going to be in that position. 

"But we are getting PBs out of (co-captains) Sharni (Williams) and Shannon (Parry) at 30 and 32, in the gym, sprinting speeds. It’s quite remarkable really. Part of that I credit to … Tommy Carter and our performance team but also part of it I credit to the rest of the girls being able push them.

"It’s exciting, it really is exciting, because they have been given some opportunities and shown what they can do with it. And then come back and trained with the intensity and doing it against the top girls in training.”

On several fronts, the art of striking the right balance between the proven old and the necessary new has been on Manenti’s mind since he took over from Tim Walsh as head coach of the Rio champions in 2018.

Many coaches have been undone by showing too much faith for too long in a previously successful team, and the sustained dominance of master coaches like Wayne Bennett and Alex Ferguson was the ability to re-invent a program and make hard calls on senior players.

"But also cautious that I am not doing things different just to be different. Walshy did an amazing job with these girls and set up a great program, and I don’t want to just throw it out the window because I feel I have to change for change sake,” Manenti said.

"But I want to be able to challenge them. I want to be able to know that that (2016) is not going to win us a gold medal. 

"The level of women’s rugby has gone (up) in massive leaps. Obviously New Zealand always a threat, but where America has taken their game to with massive physicality, power and speed, Canada continue to grow, France continue to grow. Great Britain can be outstanding.

It’s a great opportunity for us to be a team that goes back to back but we have to get a lot of things right and now, time is starting to tick.

"We are trying to drive them to a point where, not put ourselves in expectations where it’s ‘that’s good enough’ or ‘that’s where we have been’. No, that’s not going to win you a gold medal. We have to go beyond that, we have to do more than that, we have to push harder.”

The eight players missing, including Cherry, Dom DuToit, Emma Sykes and Mahalia Murphy, are all on track to play in the Sydney sevens in late January.

Just how many teenagers make it into the Tokyo squad remains to be seen but they’ll be given plenty of opportunities to keep striking their hands up, and perhaps just as importantly, to keep driving the older players to new physical heights.

The speed and energy of youth is one thing but in sevens there is no substitute for heat-of-battle experience, particularly in the ability to remain composed under the nerve-shredding pressure of knock-out matches.

The surviving core of the Rio team - Caslick, Evania Pelite, Cherry, Green, Emma Tonegato, Alicia Lucas (nee Quirk), Williams and Parry - will still be Manenti’s go-to stars, but will they all make the cut under the pressure of the new breed?

"It’d be hard to think too many girls who were successful in Rio won’t be in the mix but they know there are no guarantees,” Manenti said.

"There are obviously clear front runners and people we have in mind. But sport has a funny way of being cruel at times, and Charlotte was coming away until yesterday and training but she hurt her hamstring and is out of the tour. That gives someone else an opportunity.

"The same thing could happen when we get to Tokyo and you lose a key player so we have to keep developing these young girls so making sure we have multiple options of coverage around all our top players.”

Hannaway earned her spot after being named player of the series in the AON Uni 7s, which was won by her University of Queensland team, and impressive form in Australia’s Oceania Sevens victory.

Remarkably, it was her third AON Uni series, having started when she was 16.


"I definitely I am trying to learn as much as I can at the moment. Obviously the Olympics would be a dream come true but at the moment I am just focussing on developing as a player and getting stronger and faster, and hopefully if everything goes right, I will get up there soon,” Hannaway said.

Nathan, who has been earmarked for big things in several codes alongside Higgins-Ashby and Paki, was also strong in the Fiji tournament and has lit up the Australian training sessions, too.

“She literally knocked the door down with performances you can’t refuse in training. She is not a big girl but she is learning quick, she is playing smart, she is thinking smart, she was really impressive in Oceania but has come back here and is standing up; knocking Ellia over at training and things like that,” Manenti said.

"Georgia was a standout player in Aon, and we wanted to reward her with an opportunity to show that that AON system means something to us and it does.”

AUSTRALIA SQUAD FOR DUBAI

 

1. Shannon Parry, University of Sydney, Queensland, 26 caps 

2. Sharni Williams (c), University of Canberra, Canberra, 31 caps 

3. Sariah Paki, University of Technology Sydney, NSW, 6 caps 

4. Cassandra Staples, University of Queensland, NSW, 8 caps

5. Emma Tonegato, University of Western Australia, NSW, 26 caps 

6. Evania Pelite, University of Adelaide, Queensland, 25 caps

7. Georgia Hannaway*, University of Queensland, Queensland 

8. Madison Ashby, University of Technology Sydney, NSW, 1 cap

9. Faith Nathan*, University of Technology Sydney, NSW

10. Alicia Lucas, University of New England, NSW, 30 caps 

11. Rhiannon Byers, University of New England, NSW, 2 caps 

12. Ellia Green, University of Melbourne, Victoria, 26 caps

*Denotes uncapped 

 

 

DUBAI Fixtures: 

 

Thursday 5 December

Australia v Fiji, 8.12pm AEDT

 

Friday 6 December 

Australia v Ireland, 4.22pm AEDT 

Australia v Spain, 9.34pm AEDT