The shock resignation of their head coach has brought out the best in Australia’s men’s rugby sevens team as they hunt Olympic glory, according to former mentor Michael O’Connor.
O’Connor, who guided the Thunderbolts for six seasons before being replaced by Welshman Geraint John, says John’s August departure has helped, rather than hindered, his former charges.
Not because the Welshman was holding them back, but because the players have been forced to step and take more responsibility on the road to Rio.
Dual international O’Connor, who maintains an advisory role with the Thunderbolts, says their response has them poised to start the 10-leg world sevens series with a bang in Dubai this weekend.
“The players have taken a lot more responsibility on their own shoulders and in many ways it’s been a good thing,” he told AAP.
“It’s brought more leaders out and players are a lot more vocal.
“This is the best preparation the boys have had going into a world series, certainly since I’ve been involved.”
Former Wallabies and Waratahs flyhalf Scott Bowen will serve as Australia’s interim coach in Dubai and the second leg in Cape Town next week while the ARU assess a shortlist of five coaching contenders.
While coaches with international sevens experience are thin on the ground, O’Connor says they’re all “quality” candidates and expects a good appointment before the third leg in Wellington in late January.
Wallabies flyer Henry Speight will make his international sevens debut in Dubai, starting Friday evening (AEST) after being a squad member in last month’s Olympic qualifying tournament success in Auckland.
While still contracted to the Brumbies, Speight is aiming to play four tournaments around his Super Rugby commitments to gain Olympic selection.
“I think he’ll go real well,” O’Connor siad. “He’s Fijian, he understands the game, he’s played it before and he’s popular around the group.”
Australia’s women’s team will also start their world series campaign in Dubai, which has been a happy hunting ground for the Pearls.
They have made the final in the past two tournaments in the Middle East, for a win and a runners-up medal, and coach Tim Walsh again has them well prepared following their third place finish on last season’s circuit.
Both Aussie teams begin the season as long-term contenders for gold at the Rio Games, staged in August, two months after the world series’ completion.