The Australian men’s sevens team is battling a looming eligibility crisis and a raft of injuries going into the Commonwealth Games.
Just 70 days out from the start of the Glasgow campaign, the ARU is in a race against time to make sure Tongan-born rising star Afa Pakalani can play in the Australian jersey.
The New Zealand-raised winger, who spent two seasons at the Waratahs, was signed by the sevens side a year ago but had to undergo a knee reconstruction before making his debut in March.
With “a starting seven all sitting in Australia”, according to outgoing coach Michael O’Connor, Pakalani’s seven tries across four tournaments was a crucial contribution to the team’s rally late in this year’s world series.
But the 24-year-old is not yet an Australian citizen and must be by the time the squad goes to Glasgow. He is not the only player battling a mountain of paperwork to make the Games.
New Zealand-born Pama Fou, a sevens regular since switching from representative volleyball to rugby five years ago, has only just gained Australian citizenship.
And newcomer Allan Fa’alava’au, New Zealand-born and one of a small handful of the side’s world class players, is not only out of contention until October because of a shoulder reconstruction but also not yet a citizen.
It has taken more than 12 months for all three players to get to this point after the ARU started the paper trail.
Crunch time for all three is kick-off for the next world series, in October, which also doubles as the Olympics qualification series.
Under International Olympic Committee rules, a team must present a complete roster of naturalised players in all qualification matches for its bid for inclusion to be recognised.
On top of all that, another six key players are injured. Team management are confident Shannon Walker (shin), Lewis Holland (hamstring), Greg Jeloudev (knee), Thomas Cusack (knee), Alex Gibbon (ankle) and Fou (shoulder) will all recover in time to play in Glasgow, but many of them will go down to the wire.
And although the ARU says it is close to locking in O’Connor’s replacement, the team is without a full-time coach after its long-standing leader returned home to Queensland’s Sunshine Coast.
Despite the pressures, O’Connor believes the team is on the cusp of pulling it all together after injuries and a revolving door of players interrupted previous campaigns.
Its performance last weekend suggested something had clicked. The fifth-ranked Australians, who have never won a world series, disposed of sevens giants Fiji and England on their way to a thrilling match-up with New Zealand in the final of the London tournament.
The teams were locked at 21-21 at half-time, only for the Australians to go down 52-33. It was the largest combined points haul ever recorded in a world series final.
“They overachieved, there is no doubt about it,” O’Connor said. “To beat England in that semi-final at Twickenham, they played close to some of the most perfect rugby that I have seen from any side all year.
“When we get the other seven back into the squad, given their young age and that a lot of improvement is still to come, they can do something special. They need to go to another level to beat New Zealand – every team does – but I think they have it in them.”
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