Absence of Rush and Serevi opens Sevens door for Ella's hopefuls as band brushes up on Waltzing Matilda
Forget the Sevens World Cup, what matters more for Australia is the Hong Kong Sevens, says coach Glen Ella. And 'advance Australia' will be his rallying cry as they attempt to wrest the Cup from the stranglehold of fellow-southern hemisphere giants New Zealand and Fiji this weekend.
'This is the most prestigious sevens tournament in the world and this is what we want to win,' said Ella as he fine-tuned his side's preparations at the Kowloon Cricket Club yesterday.
The absence of two legends of the game - Eric Rush and Waisale Serevi - from the 2001 Credit Suisse First Boston Hong Kong Sevens has thrown open the race for Cup honours. And Ella says the time is ripe for change - and for the Richard Graham-led Australians to win. 'It has been far too long since we have won. The last time Australia won the Hong Kong Sevens, Bob Hawke was the prime minister. A lot of water has passed under the bridge since.'
That was way back in 1988. The lengthy lack of success is enough to make any true-blue Aussie cry on national TV in remorse.
'New Zealand and Fiji have brought new teams to Hong Kong. If anything, we are the most stable team around and it gives us an advantage. But we can't afford to blink for they could both put a try on the board,' said Ella.
Ella knows what it is to win in Hong Kong. The Wallaby great played in four Cup-winning teams (the last being in 1985) in the days when Waltzing Matilda was a hit song at the Sevens.
For the past five years, he has coached Australia who have flattered early only to run out of steam in the latter stages and be transfixed by the special brand of magic woven by either Rush or Serevi.
But this pair, the best two sevens players in the world, are missing this year. Rush is injured and Serevi has been dropped. And when you take into account the troubled build-ups New Zealand and Fiji have had in the run-up to Hong Kong, then maybe Australia do have a glimmer of hope.
New Zealand and Fiji, who between them have shared the spoils at the past seven occasions, are both fielding relatively raw and inexperienced sides. The Kiwis have only two players who played last year, skipper Karl Te Nana and Jared Going, while Fijian captain Fero Lasagavibau is the only survivor from the team that lost 31-5 to the Kiwis in the Cup final.
Recent form also favours Australia. New Zealand stumbled at the last leg of the World Sevens Series on their home turf in Wellington, being dumped unceremoniously from the Cup competition by Fiji. They then lost to a resurgent Samoa in the Plate.
Fiji have their fair share of problems, too, not least of which is the controversial decision by new coach Tomasi Cama to drop Serevi. Cama says Serevi, 32, was dropped because he is 'past it'.
The islanders have also not won a World Sevens Series in almost a year. The last one was Tokyo, 2000. They have entered all three finals in Durban, Dubai and Wellington, but lost twice to New Zealand and once to Australia. Add to that their failure to defend their World Cup in January in Argentina and the pressure is mounting.
But Cama insists that he is under no pressure although his job could be on the line if his team fails to come up with the goods and a winners' purse of US$100,000 in Hong Kong.
'I'm confident the boys will perform. We will win,' said Cama. When he left Fiji with the team, they left without the blessing of the public who wanted their favourite son Serevi in the side. But Cama knows that if the Cup is won on Sunday, everything will be forgiven.
England coach Adrian Thompson hit the nail on the head when he said: 'To leave Serevi out, Cama must be really confident.'
Cama is quietly confident. Perhaps he has an ace hidden up his sleeve. Maybe it could be the presence of his three rugby league players - Eparama Navale, Atunaisa Vunivalu and Saula Rabaka. Expect big hits and cast-iron defence from the trio.
Rabaka is talked about as being the new Serevi. Can he do the goosestep as well? Or does he have that same impish audacity that Serevi bedazzled countless opponents with and left fans spellbound over the past 12 years?
While Fiji, New Zealand and Australia will be the prime contenders, watch out for Samoa (the only team other than New Zealand or Fiji to win the Cup in the past 12 years), Argentina, Canada and the United States to cause an upset or two.
There is a delicious air of uncertainty over predicting this year's champions. Will New Zealand's unrecognisables be primed by crafty coach Gordon Tietjens to repeat last year or will Serevi-less mean more for Fiji.
When new Hong Kong Rugby Football Union chairman John Molloy was asked his opinion yesterday, he plumped for Australia. So did England's Thompson who said: 'They have been the bridesmaid for so long, but I think this year they'll be at the wedding.'
So the experts choice is Australia. The band must be brushing up on Waltzing Matilda again.