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Sydney champions – but concerns for future

Sydney have won their third Australian National Championship – but coach Rob Baumann fears for the future of fifteens in Australia.

Emily Robinson hits it up for Sydney on day one. (Picture: Sportography)

While most country’s national fifteens title last several weeks, if not months, Australia’s National Championship is still completed in one weekend, with four games being played in just three days at one central location – this year Runaway Bay, in Gold Coast, Queensland. And this year the tournament took on a special significance with selection for the tour to New Zealand, followed by the World Cup.

Results on Day One set up the final pool games on the second day as effective semi-finals. Sydney and Western Australia both beat South Australia Barbarians and the Australian Defence Force comfortably in Pool A, while Queensland topped Pool B, with ACT second, after big wins over Victoria and NSW Country.

Sydney outclassed their opponents, with captain Ashleigh Hewson notching up a personal tally of 32 points in the two games. Debutants Kirrily Laws and Crystal Maguire also crossed for their first points for the team, while No. 8 Victoria Latu reminded everyone why she was awarded the 2016 player of the tournament putting in some notable carries as she knocked over defenders and crossed for a try herself.

Opening the day with first match of the Championship against South Australia, Sydney got their campaign off to a convincing start, notching up the first points in the opening minute of play with a nice manoeuvre out wide to flanker Grace Hamilton to send her down the sidelines for one in the corner. Starved of the ball for most of the game, South Australia spent most of the match defending their lines as Sydney launched multi-phased attacks that resulted in a 39-0 scoreline at fulltime.

In their second game, Sydney upped the intensity against Australian Defence Force Rugby Union (ADFRU) with a near flawless execution that resulted in by far the biggest score line of the day in any match — 68-0. ADFRU were caught flat-footed from the outset and struggled to contain their opposition let alone touch the ball. Sydney were unrelenting as they savaged the ADFRU defensive lines with superb expansive ball skills and some solid work by a formidable forward pack, that opened gaps and allowed the defending champions free passage to the chalk.

The West Australians won both their matches on Friday, a 19-0 victory over ADFRU followed by a 20-0 win over South Australia.

The second day games – effectively semi-finals - were far closer with Sydney grinding out a 13-0 win over Western Australia, thanks to a Victoria Latu try and the boot of Hewson, while a Michelle Millward try for ACT was just enough to see them home 5-3 against Queensland.

The final on the third day was a more one sided affair with Sydney beating the ACT Brumbies 34-0, completing a national-championship hat-trick and leaving the Brumbies heartbroken for a second year in a row after a repeat result of last year's grand final. Ash Hewson again led the charge for Sydney, finishing with a 19-point haul.

Tighthead Evelyn Horomia opened the scoring with a try, before two penalties from skipper and flyhalf Hewson stretched that margin to 13 points at half-time.

In the second period Victoria Latu, Chloe Leupape and Hewson all crossed the line on their way to a big win.

Queensland finished third with a 27-13 win over WA earlier in the day, with five penalties from Fenella Hake sealing that victory for the hosts.

The South Australia Barbarians took out the seventh-place playoff in a tight 17-12 win over Victoria, despite a double from Rebels No 8 Ashley Marsters.

However, it was the comments by Sydney coach Rob Baumann which perhaps stood out when he warned that the ARU faces severe challenges if the 15-woman game is to grow further in Australia Specifically, Baumann says, a lack of funding is at the heart of the current issues affecting women's XVs rugby in Australia.

"In terms of Women's XVs, there's definitely a lot more that can be done for the game, that's for sure," Baumann said. "[The players] are not rewarded in terms of monetary payments, a lot of them have kids, they work ... some of them have to work different shifts so they can get to training. But they'll still get there; they're all out at the back block somewhere on the dimly lit field. To be quite honest, unfortunately Women's XVs is sort of the poorer second cousin to sevens at the moment so hopefully the wheels of change are in motion.

"They pay their own way to the tournament, they're getting to training sessions two or three times a week, they're balancing their families, they're trying to get to the gym; there are lots of challenges in the women's game of XVs."

ARU General Manager High Performance, Ben Whitaker, said that the national body is working hard to develop the women's game.

"We have plans to enhance the Women's XVs pathway and have shown a significant increase in investment the past two years culminating in the biggest year for the Wallaroos ever in 2017 with the Buildcorp National XVs Championships, the International Series in New Zealand in June and the Women's Rugby World Cup in Ireland," he said.

"In a perfect world you would be able to fund all levels and segments of the game significantly, but the reality is we have to make choices and strategically there has been a focus on the Sevens format for women. We have seen that strategy bear fruit at the highest level with our success in Rio, as well as the community level.

"Sevens is proving to be an attractive offering for girls and women, which has been boosted by the 'Olympic effect' but at the same time we have seen a 24 percent increase in women's club XVs participation in the past year -- which indicates the Sevens game can be a gateway to XVs participation."

Baumann took over as head coach of the Sydney team this year, having been forwards coach since 2015, and Warringah Ratettes women's forwards coach since 2016, and he has noticed that increase in women's participation in sevens as a result of both the ARU strategy the Women's Olympics success in Rio de Janeiro; but has seen little to no increase in the XVs game.

"The numbers in XV's are fairly level, they're about the same as last year," Baumann continued. "I know the sevens have created a lot of interest, but sevens and XVs are different beasts. Certainly participation rates in women's rugby around sevens are certainly going gangbusters, but when it comes to XVs it's ... not flatlined, but it's still fairly stable.

"I wouldn't say there's been a massive growth in XVs, but certainly I've had a lot of girls approach me at club level about playing sevens and certainly they dip their toe in the water and try and play XVs as well."

Baumann says the 15-women game faces increased competition for participation from rival codes as well as sevens, especially with the success of the AFLW competition and the growth of rugby league.

"Some of our best players are moving to rugby league. They're being financially rewarded, they're in a competition under the NRL banner. There's other codes, but obviously rugby league is a similar game and it draws them in. There's probably a couple that would've been playing in our [Sydney] squad, but they've switched over to play rugby league."

Looking down the track towards the World Cup, Baumann believes Australia will continue to sit outside the top four nations without significantly increased funding. The Wallaroos sit sixth on the World Rugby Women's International rankings, and they having struggled against their trans-Tasman and Northern Hemisphere counterparts since finishing sixth at the 2014 Women's Rugby World Cup in France.

"[Disappointing results] at the last Rugby World Cup and the recent tour of New Zealand tournament, yeah for sure, it's organisation and funding," Baumann said.

"All the Northern Hemisphere sides are invested, the women's XVs system is great. They've got their Women's Six Nations, they're obviously actively growing their game and investing in it, but unfortunately we seem to be dragging the chain a little bit down here."

Baumann believes there's a simple solution to develop better results internationally and increase the growth of women's XVs in Australia.

"They need to invest in the Wallaroos, they need to invest in the states and the state competitions," he said.

"Maybe they need to have some of these girls on small retainers, help them cover costs. There's plenty of travelling involved. They have to take time off work to travel overseas, which can be months at a time sometimes.

"Hats off to [the players]. They have the ambition to make it as far as they can and they have dreams like everyone else does. They're not getting very much assistance, but they're out there. It seems to me it needs to be focused on from the top right down to the bottom and it needs to become a priority."

Whitaker disputes that Australia is 'dragging the chain' - "there is not the scale ... or participation in the XVs game to consider making the program semi or fully-professional. While a few countries including England have a professional women's XVs program, others including New Zealand do not," Whitaker said. "In the current landscape there is not the scale, in terms of available national and international competition, or participation in the XVs game to consider making the program semi or fully-professional.

"We are working to increase the opportunities for the Wallaroos in terms of quality competition. That wouldn't be possible without substantial investment from the ARU and the wonderful support that the women's game receives through Buildcorp."

National Championship Scores:

Pool A: Sydney  39-0  SA Barbarians; WA  19-0  ADFRU; Sydney  68-0  ADFRU; WA  20-0  SA Barbarians; ADFRU  24-0  SA Barbarians; Sydney  13-0  WA

RANK

TEAM

P

W

L

D

Df

TT

BP4T

BP-7P

Pts

1

Sydney

3

3

0

0

120

17

2

0

14

 

2

WA

3

2

1

0

26

5

0

0

8

 

3

ADFRU

3

1

2

0

-63

3

0

0

4

 

4

SA Barbarians

3

0

3

0

-83

0

0

0

0

 

 

Pool B: ; QLD  22-0  NSW Country; ACT  17-3  VIC; ACT  23-0  NSW Country; QLD  29-0  VIC; NSW Country  22-7  VIC; ACT  5-3  QLD

RANK

TEAM

P

W

L

D

Df

TT

BP4T

BP-7P

Pts

1

ACT

3

3

0

0

39

7

0

0

12

 

2

QLD

3

2

1

0

49

9

2

1

11

 

3

NSW Country

3

1

2

0

-30

4

1

0

5

 

4

VIC

3

0

3

0

-58

1

0

0

0

 

 

7th Playoff: SA Barbarians  17-12  VIC

Plate Final: ADFRU  10-7  NSW Country

3rd Playoff: WA  13-27  QLD

Cup Final: Sydney  34-0  ACT

Leading scorers:

 

T

C

P

Tot

Hewson, Ashleigh

Sydney

2

17

10

74

Hake, Fenella

Queensland

 

5

5

25

Cope, Tui

WA

1

2

3

18

Fatu, Melissa 

NSW C

3

  

15

Hamilton, Grace

Sydney

3

  

15

Kaiwai, Ariana

Sydney

3

  

15

Latu, Victoria

Sydney

3

  

15

Marsters, Ashle

Victoria

3

  

15

Rasolea, Vuanimasei

Queensland

3

  

15

Hall, Nicole

ADF

 

4

2

14