Down but not out
Australian Sevens selectors have responded to their team's disappointing performances this season by making wholesale changes for Hong Kong.
The Aussies are languishing in eighth on the IRB standings after losing to Tonga and Canada in Los Angeles. In Wellington, a fortnight earlier, they had suffered the indignity of having their colours lowered by Kenya. Of the five players brought into the side, the most influential may well be Arthur Little.
Gifted playmaker Little has been in scintillating form for his club, Randwick, in domestic sevens tournaments. A former Australian Schools rugby league representative, he switched to rugby union in 2001 and made his international sevens debut the subsequent year. He next turned his focus upon the 15-a-side code and gained selection for Sydney and the Australian Barbarians.
Little returned to his initial sporting love in January, featuring among the Aboriginal All Stars at the World Rugby League Sevens, but is now back in the union fold and eager to make his mark at a global level.
Pacy fullback Peter Hewat's recall is also likely to provide greater penetration. Since appearing in Hong Kong 12 months ago, he has topped the Sydney club competition's try-scoring chart and been drafted into the New South Wales Waratahs' Super 12 squad.
A Hong Kong call-up marks the latest stage in the rise of flanker Matt Hodgson, a teammate of Hewat at the Manly club. He won Australian Under-21 caps in 2001, prior to sustaining a badly broken ankle. His comeback was stalled by a serious shoulder injury two years later. However, he has regained full fitness and can boast a recent outing with the Waratahs. Hodgson comes from a rugby league background, his father playing for the much-lamented Newtown Jets in the old New South Wales Premiership.
Loose forward Ben Mowen's introduction is a greater surprise. An Australian Schoolboys selection in 2002, he moved up to the Queensland Under-19 and B sides the following year. The student teacher faces his biggest test.
Patrick Phibbs' inclusion astonished no one though. He has recently returned home following a stint at Saracens in London, as understudy for England star Kyran Bracken. Introduced to IRB sevens in 2001, he has worn the green and gold at under-19 level, too. Further glory, albeit of the reflected variety, is provided through his two brothers-in-law - Wallabies Owen Finnegan and Warwick Waugh.
Prior to the start of the season, the Australian Rugby Union announced it would be using its sevens side primarily to blood promising young players.
As a consequence, the team's most seasoned sevens player and captain, Paul Warwick, is merely 23. Both his father and brother have played rugby league professionally and, for two seasons, he featured in the 13-man code with Brisbane Broncos. In the union game, his CV includes outings with the Australian Schoolboys and Under-21 combinations, as well as Queensland Reds in the Super 12.
'We want to do well in every tournament we take part but at the same time we use the sevens to give some of the younger guys an opportunity to feel what it is like playing in front of big crowds and the experience of travelling as a team,' says assistant coach Scott Bowen.
'Sevens is mainly a chance for us to assess which players have the potential to become a good 15s player. It is unfortunate to a degree that we are not able to bring the big name players like the Mat Rogers or the Wendell Sailors. But this has been the case ever since Super 12 started,' added Bowen.
The ARU's policy has backfired to a degree, with several promising youngsters being thrown prematurely into the whirlpool of international sevens and then jettisoned. On the other hand, some such as Adam Ashley-Cooper have thrived on the challenge. Ashley-Cooper, a centre, will celebrate his 20th birthday (on the 27th) in Hong Kong, having added Super 12 service in South Africa with the ACT Brumbies to his bow. He is the nephew of former Wallaby Graeme Bond.
Richard Brown is another to prosper since receiving his first taste of international sevens at the 2003 Hong Kong carnival. The nuggety flanker then played a key role in the Australian unit who finished runner-up at the World Under-19 Championship. Still a teenager, he is being hailed as a Wallaby in the making.
Jarrod Saffy may be a future Wallaby too, though he originally dreamed of becoming a Springbok. South African born, the No 8 moved Down Under five years ago and has graduated to national sevens duty from the 2001 Australian Schoolboys line-up. He is still only 19.
The squad's second immigrant, New Zealand native Chris Siale, can almost be called an international sevens veteran, with nine tournaments under his belt already at the age of 20. One more from the Australian Schoolboys assembly line, the utility back is studying Internet Technology at technical college in Sydney.
By including Luke Inman, the selectors have acknowledged that experience does have a part to play. A Waratahs ever-present during the 2001 Super 12, the wily centre was surprisingly discarded a year later and rejected an offer to join Queensland Reds as it would have disrupted his medical studies at Sydney University. Instead, he stayed in the New South Wales capital and linked up with the Australian sevens team at the start of this campaign.
Like the majority of his charges, coach Bill Millard is obviously being groomed for greater things. The 33-year-old cut his coaching teeth in the rugby backwater of Adelaide, prior to moving to Sydney and being appointed the ARU's development manager, with responsibilities for deaf, women's, students' and Aboriginal rugby. He took the role of sevens mentor in 2002 and this will be his second trip to Hong Kong.
On the basis of raw talent alone, Australia can be expected to prove their lowly place in the standings is an aberration. As followers of numerous sports will testify, Australian standard-bearers can never be discounted, whatever the circumstances. Though this outfit does not have the pedigree of their most illustrious predecessors, they are capable of a very substantial bite.