Ex-sprinter Ellia Green, dubbed the “female Israel Folau”, tells Planet Rugby of the surge in the growth of women's sevens.
Ex-sprinter Ellia Green, dubbed the “female Israel Folau”, tells Planet Rugby of the wholescale surge in the growth of women's sevens.
Australian is a haven of sporting excellence. With top-notch facilities in abundance, and a youth-centric infrastructure the UK can only dream of, the nation is an industrial-scale factory for the production of talented athletes.
The soon-to-be champions fly off the rapid-fire conveyor belt, perfectly packaged and primed to dominate our sporting landscape. Think of Ian Thorpe and Ricky Ponting, Cathy Freeman and Lleyton Hewitt, Adam Scott and Sally Pearson. The names trip off the tongue.
But despite the perennial presence of the Wallabies near the summit of the IRB World Rankings, rugby union frequently places a poor second-best in terms of national attendance and participation figures to its cross-code cousins of Australian Rules football and league, as well as the ubiquitously popular cricket, and even soccer.
Perhaps then it is surprising to note that one young woman gave up her lifelong athletics dream in pursuit of success in the abbreviated oval ball game, when women's sevens is an area of the sport that even to those scores of rugby fanatics barely registers a blip on the radar.
21-year-old Ellia Green was a promising 100m and 200m sprinter, as well as turning her hand to the long-jump, living out the final years of her adolescence in Melbourne before a fluke encounter with sevens rugby turned her life upside down.
From the talent identification camps where, having never before picked up a rugby ball, Fijian-born Green beat off competition from hundreds of young women across Australia to win a place in the sevens squad; to her first-ever game of competitive sevens in the Houston leg of the World Series last year, as she took to the field with instruction “just run”; to this weekend's title-deciding Amsterdam tournament, where Australia will gun for the Series crown, it's been a whirlwind journey.
“I started running at about six years old, and I represented Australia for the first time when I was 15,” Green told Planet Rugby.
“It was my dream to compete at the Olympics and represent Australia in the 100m and 200m, while I was also a long-jumper. I was training at that every day.
“One day my Fijian cousin told me to come with her to a rugby sevens talent ID camp. So I went with her just for support, but I wasn't actually planning on taking part.
“But as we arrived late to this camp, I thought I may as well give it a go and have some fun. All I could do was run with the ball, but I ended up getting picked for the next camp, and I went through about three different camps before they picked me to join the squad. That's when I made the decision.”
A tough decision, admits Green, to pass on her burning ambition in favour of a sport she knew little about and had scarcely played, but one she rates as the best she's ever taken.
It shows too just how powerful the fresh draw of Olympic representation through sevens can prove to the young and multi-talented, and indeed the rapid upward trajectory in the quality and profile of women's rugby across the world.
The introduction of a female IRB World Series in 2012 brought with it the attractive prospect of travelling the globe, full-time, dedicated programmes for athletes who previously had studies to maintain and jobs to hold down, and enticed interest from major players in the world of media and broadcasting.
“Rugby sevens has so much to offer in terms of travelling, where it can take you, and of course the Olympic Games,” attested Green.
“It's growing so much in Australia; it's among the fastest-going sports in the world. I think now everyone knows rugby sevens will be in the Olympics, it's going to be tough for me to nail down my contract for the next two years with the upcoming talent that will be coming through.
“That's definitely my goal: keep my contract and get that gold medal in Rio in 2016.”
The views of one of the deadliest finishers on the circuit are shared by the man entrusted with her development, head coach Tim Walsh. A former fly-half with Leeds Carnegie, Worcester Warriors and the Reds, Walsh believes more athletes will follow Green's lead in jumping ship to focus on sevens.
“It (the Olympics) is a massive draw; we have sprinters like Ellia and girls from other sports – rugby league, netball, basketball – who are coming to sevens. It's definitely attracting some talented young athletes,” said Walsh.
“They're now full-time athletes who can concentrate on sevens. With the added focus from the ARU, we have dedicated medical staff that can work on rehab and prehab after each tournament, whereas before the girls would fly home and there wasn't much hands-on treatment.
“It is amazing how quickly she and all the players have improved across Australia. It's really nice to see the girls progressing; their skill level is going up almost from tournament to tournament.
“People don't realise how quickly they're coming on – it's almost a case of rebranding women's rugby. These girls are elite athletes. We often get them training against the boys, and they certainly don't shy away!
“I believe it can become one of the premier women's sports in time.”
Green laughs off comparisons with the prolific superstar Folau, whose meteoric rise to fame in 2013 catapulted him to the very top of the global game, and USA Sevens sensation Carlin Isles, like Green, a former 100m sprinter labelled the fastest man in world rugby.
But Walsh is well aware of the valuable game-breaking commodity he must continue to nurture. Green's awareness needs work, her ball skills are improving with each passing game, but the all-important “x factor” burns bright, he says.
The coach leads his charges to Amsterdam this weekend knowing a tournament victory would secure Australia the Series title, where they currently sit two points behind New Zealand on the overall standings.
The top prize would be nice, admits Walsh, a fitting reward to the squad of just 20 who have repaid his faith in them with a string of stellar performances, winning silverware in Dubai and Brazil.
But as Rio looms on the horizon, and more nations pump increasingly fat sums of money into their sevens programmes, Walsh already has his eyes on the challenges lying in wait next season.
“It's such an evolving landscape; for us this has been more of an establishment year,” added Walsh.
“We've established ourselves among the top teams on the circuit, and now the real challenge comes next year. All of the other countries are developing their sevens programmes – we've had a good season but now we've got to stay up there.”