Off the back of Australia's historic gold medal at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, women and young girls have been flocking to rugby sevens right across the country to join one of the fastest growing women's sports worldwide.
Recognising the need to harness this demand and provide more competitive playing opportunities, the Australian Rugby Union (ARU) decided to create a new domestic university sevens tournament, in partnership with title sponsors Aon.
The inaugural eight-team competition was played at the end of August and, in an Australian sporting first, featured squads made up of Aussie Sevens representatives, elite regional rugby players and top-end sporting students from each respective university, many of whom aspire to follow their heroes onto the podium at Tokyo 2020 and beyond.
Members of Australia's triumphant Commonwealth Youth Games side in the Bahamas in July were also involved in a highly competitive tournament that was won by the University of Queensland.
"Following on from Australia's gold medal success, our challenge has been to create opportunities for young girls and women to play our game and this competition, which we hope to expand in the coming years, goes a long way in doing that,” said ARU Chief Executive Bill Pulver.
"The players taking part from the various universities in coming years could form part of the Australian team to represent our country at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games and that is an exciting prospect for players and fans alike.”
Building a pathway
Australia coach Tim Walsh viewed the Aon University Sevens as a golden opportunity to assess his options ahead of the start of the HSBC World Rugby Women’s Sevens Series.
The former international could not have asked for a better response and was so impressed that he included six of the rising stars – Mackenzie Sadler, Page McGregor, Katie Harrison, Yasmin Meakes, Olivia White and Lauren Brown – in Australia’s squad for a five-match, warm-up series against New Zealand in October.
With Olympians such as Charlotte Caslick, Shannon Parry, Sharni Williams, Emilee Cherry and Alicia Quirk still very much part of the picture, Walsh is excited by the depth of talent at his disposal and believes the new breed coming through can raise the bar even higher.
“I just look at the current girls that I have had the pleasure of working with for four or five years and think how remarkable they are with the way they applied themselves athletically and mentally and how quickly they took it on.
“Is this next lot the same? I guess, ultimately, they are going to be better because they are going to have these other girls, their role models, teaching them.
“I guess the next two or three years will prove that but, from what I have seen, there is some very special talent coming through with real points of difference that are very much suited to the way that we want to play the game.
“I guess the biggest thing (with the Aon University Sevens) was building the pathway and putting the depth into the Australian women’s sevens programme. We were out there really to find the future world series players and the future Olympians.”
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