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Trailblazing Australia Women Ready For Sydney Sevens Debut

20/01/2017 13:22 GMT | Updated 20/01/2017 13:22 GMT

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Ten months ahead of the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, where rugby sevens made its Games debut last August, only a fool would have placed a wager against New Zealand triumphing in the women's competition.

At that point they were all conquering, having been crowned back-to-back-to-back champions in the first three editions of the HSBC Women's World Sevens Series, winning 10 of the 15 tournaments. Additionally, they were reigning World Cup champions, following glory in Russia two years earlier.

So when Trans-Tasman rivals Australia dominated last season, securing a maiden Sevens Series crown by chalking up titles in three of the five rounds - leaving New Zealand devoid of any campaign crowns - and using that momentum to top the podium in Brazil, it provided one of the biggest-ever upsets in a game where unpredictability is king, or perhaps queen.

The two glittering results - at the Olympics, and in the Sevens Series - for 'the Pearls' were a huge surprise to everyone. Everyone, that is, apart from the Australia Rugby Union, who had timed their team's tilt at knocking the New Zealanders off their perch to perfection, through years of careful planning and, crucially, financial backing.

It was fitting that to secure gold New Zealand stood in the way in the final at the Deodoro Stadium. Tim Walsh's women held their nerve, and the 24-17 scoreline flattered the losers, who scored two late tries with the result already beyond them.

Given that Australia bagged just eight gold medals last summer - an embarrassingly meagre return for the sports-mad country - the rugby sevens success generated a massive amount of interest back home, and vindicated the ARU's long-term support and progressive approach which has become the envy of other nations.

The warning signs that the Australian women could topple their greatest sporting foes were there, though. Of the six matches New Zealand had lost before the 2015-16 Sevens Series, four had been at the hands of the Australians. That steady improvement which was converted to supremacy in 2016 began four years ago when the ARU dished out central contracts to the women.

The country's governing body tempted talented sportswomen in other fields to cross codes - again showing a pioneering attitude which has left opponents in their wake. That ploy worked sensationally well; better than expected, in fact. Indeed, of Walsh's 12-woman Olympic squad five - Emilee Cherry, Charlotte Caslick, Alicia Quirk, Gemma Etheridge and Evania Pelite - had previously represented their country at touch football. A trio had moved from other sports - Emma Tonegato (rugby league), Chloe Dalton (basketball) and Ellia Green (track and field) - with an opportunity to play for a gold medal the driving factor.

There were teething problems during their transition to rugby's abbreviated game, understandably, but perseverance paid off. Tonegato, Green and Caslick all scored in the Olympic final, with the latter ending a life-changing 2016 by being crowned World Rugby's female sevens player of the year.

ARU has continued its commitment to women's sevens, by successfully lobbying to host a leg on the Sevens Series circuit. On February 3 the women will run out at the 45,500-capacity Allianz Stadium, marking their inaugural home competition. They kick off a day before the men's tournament begins at the same venue, and the women have been afforded equal billing in the marketing material, justly.

HSBC's The Future of Rugby Report, published in April last year - before the Rio Olympics, when the sport exploded in popularity - predicted that by 2026 some 40 per cent of all sevens players will be female, and with Australia's governing authority showing that long-standing commitment reaps reward, other nations will be following suit, surely.

Those forward-thinking folk at the ARU are not resting on their laurels, however, and have moved to take advantage of the interest in sevens generated by the Olympic triumph. Later this year a full-time professional domestic women's competition will be launched, in conjunction with eight universities, with a men's competition to follow in 2018. This is in part to develop a pathway for players to reach the top, and also to stop young sporting talent being snapped up by rival sports, including rugby league, netball, and Australian Rules Football.

Home success in the Sydney Sevens will help further inspire would-be future stars. After suffering a 12-point defeat to New Zealand in the cup final in first round of the 2016-17 Sevens Series, in Dubai last December, the Pearls will be extra-motivated to polish their game and secure a morale-boosting win.

For the moment - and certainly on the eve of their maiden home tournament - Australia's women are the team to stop. It promises to be a fascinating battle for supremacy between them and New Zealand in the coming year or two. And when Walsh's team compete in the Commonwealth Games, held on the Gold Coast, in April next year - the first time the women will be joining the men - it is likely that they, rather than their Trans-Tasman rivals, will be the bookmakers' favourite.

- For more information on Sydney Sevens and the men's and women's HSBC series go to http://www.worldrugby.org/sevens-series