After creating history at the Olympic Games Rio 2016, the now Australian men's rugby sevens head coach Tim Walsh hopes to see Australia on the podium again this summer.
It’s not often one gets to pick the brain of someone of Tim Walsh’s calibre.
During his five seasons leading Australia's women's rugby sevens team, he won four Oceania Sevens, two World Rugby Seven Series, a World Cup Sevens, and an Olympic Games gold medal while maintaining a winning percentage of 84 per cent.
And it's not just the trophies and achievements he's achieved but the legacy he helped build within women's sport in Australia by essentially building the women’s programme from the ground up, and turning them into the formidable side they’ve come to be known as.
So when Walsh decided to take over the reins for the men’s sevens team after the 2018 Commonwealth Games, he saw another opportunity to continue growing the sport.
“Within the playing group, the potential of where they could go, whether it be winning gold medals at the Olympics, winning Rugby World Cups but [also] the vision for the sevens game within Rugby Australia… where does sevens strategically fit within rugby? What are the benefits it can have to the rest of Australia?” he said before adding. “That was what was so humbling but so attractive about the women's game.
“The impact that we could have on Australia and the world — and those girls are just incredible ambassadors; how they did it, what they're doing now, where they're going, it was a catalyst to a whole sort of evolution of women's sport.
“I just think the potential with the game, with the players and what sevens can offer is what’s really attractive about it. I feel Australia can take a whole lot more benefits from rugby.
“As individuals, they're going to come out of the programme with hopefully some medals around the neck, but also just a great way to develop as a person and a launchpad to wherever they go,” he said.
Speaking with Tokyo 2020, it's not hard to see the passion Walsh, a former Sevens international who captained Australia, not only has for the sport but for the players too.
Building Olympic champions
There is no doubt that Walsh knows what it takes to make a team Olympic champions.
It was while playing in Italy that David Nucifora, who was there coaching Australia during the 2011 IRB Junior World Championships, asked Walsh if he wanted to coach the Australian women’s sevens team.
He initially turned down the role but a year later Nucifora approached him again, this time wanting to know if he would like to be a coaching coordinator for the men’s and women’s sevens teams. Set to retire from rugby and return to Australia, Walsh couldn’t turn down the offer.
However, women’s rugby was just in its beginning stages so Walsh came into a programme with the bare bones and decided that developing a good culture and environment was an essential part of building a team.
“In sevens, you're travelling around the world constantly to different countries, you're playing six different opposition in two days so clearly you have to be able to adapt,” the 41-year-old explained.
“You have to be able to think on your feet. You need to be a smart player and be a jack of all trades, same with the staff as well as players, because [in] sevens there's no such thing as a specialised role. We sort of built our culture on that and then, of course being in a team, it's got to be team first. We identify some key ones then each year, keep adding onto that and building into it.”
Taking over the head coach role ahead of the Dubai 7s in 2013, Australia made the final coming from 24-0 down to beat reigning champions New Zealand 35-27.
But it was only the start of what was about to come.
Australia would go on to finish runners-up that season followed by a third overall the following year. Then in the lead up to Rio 2016, which would see the introduction of women’s rugby for the first time, Australia won the 2015-16 World Rugby Sevens Series, never finishing below third during an event.
They headed into the Olympic Games as gold medal favourites. It was down to business in Brazil, as they went through the Pool stage with only a small blemish – a draw with the United States – in their undefeated run. But nothing was going to stop Australia, as they met New Zealand in the gold medal match that pitted two old foes against each other.
While New Zealand’s Portia Woodman crossed the line for a late try, it wasn’t enough to snatch the gold from Australia as they celebrated becoming Olympic champions.
“One of the advices I was given was when you're at the Olympics, make sure you take time just to step back, have a look and soak it in. That seemed like an appropriate time to have stood back and just watched the team, their families, their partners, everybody just couldn't be happier,” Walsh reminisced.
“To be part of that was just pretty special. Ultimately there's no secret to success, but all the hard work, all the planning accumulated into something that was better than expected.”
2016 Getty Images
Choosing the right attitude
In the lead up to the Rio 2016 Games, Walsh had prepared for every scenario, from logistical issues to possible injuries. But nothing can quite prepare one for a global pandemic.
“What the players and everyone wanted was certainty and we couldn't give any certainty. We had one session, we'd come into training, we were sent home for two weeks. So we couldn't promise anything, whatever information we did have, we delivered it straight away,” Walsh recalled.
“We sort of looked at what's probably [the] worst-case scenario, what have we got at our disposal, and what's been taken away from the athletes at that time. So, the travel, you couldn't have training, their job was taken away, the finances were cut heavily, their team; they're like a family and that was taken away for a period of time.”
However, it was during this time that the Australian coach drew upon the message from the book ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ – Jewish psychologist Viktor Frankl’s first-hand account as a prisoner in concentration camps. Walsh had brought the book for the team to read during a trip to Germany in 2019 as they prepared for their Olympic qualifier
While the book details the horrors Frankl experienced, it also delves into his theory about the meaning of life and how important finding meaning regardless of one’s situation. There are several takeaways from the memoir, but one that particularly stands out is "the ability to choose our attitude".
“We looked at what is it that can come out of this. We've got another year to be better. Firstly, was [focussing on] mental health then how can we fill in all these different gaps and build up towards the Olympics,” Walsh explained as the team came together to decide how they would react given the situation.
“We can work on different areas because we were actually still a young team, when you compare us to the USA, English, New Zealand and South Africans, they've all got triple the amount of caps that our players have.
It's not just the team's culture or attitude. It's mine. I got another year to be a better coach.
“Trying to expect the worst and then hope for the best then create, innovate so we can be the best prepared training team, the best prepared in competitions and mentally the strongest.”
The recipe for Tokyo 2020
Since the introduction of World Sevens Series, Australia’s men have finished anywhere between second and eighth. Along the way, they’ve won just three tournaments – their last came in 2017-18 season while their first trip to the Olympic Games at Rio 2016 saw a quarter-finals loss to finish eighth overall.
“There's a whole different landscape, a different maturity of players,” Walsh said of the men’s programme.
In Australia, the Wallabies, the national men's 15s team, are still considered the pinnacle squad of the sport. And with that in mind he came up with the “right recipe” to build into Tokyo 2020 now in 2021.
“Even in that situation [the postponement of Games] we go back to our team culture, which we live by because that culture is around enjoying the hard work, positivity, and adapting.”
And it looked as though things were on the right path as Australia came into an Olympic year with three top four place finishes in the 2019-20 World Rugby Sevens Series, including a second-place finish behind series leaders New Zealand at the Canada Sevens.
That would be the last leg for the Sevens Series with the postponement of several future legs due to the pandemic but then came the postponement of the Olympic Games. Eventually in July, the rest of the Sevens Series for the 2020-21 season was cancelled.
While it wasn’t an easy period within the Sevens programme, something Walsh touched on earlier, preparations for Tokyo 2020 got back underway in early May with physically distanced training sessions before officially re-launching their Road to Japan in November last year.
Now with just over three months out to the Games, what can the world expect when Australia run out 26 July 2021?
“They're [players] very adaptive and intelligent, they have their own sort of style of playing, which is pretty exciting due to the personnel with which we have, you got probably the most elusive player in the world in Maurice Longbottom, you've got some electric speed, you got some great leaders,” Walsh said.
“We're probably not the crash and bash team, probably more of the skill-based team with some flair and speed so what you can expect is absolute preparation, some enjoyment and a bit of entertainment.
“Everyone wants to win a gold medal, but we're not going there thinking, gold, gold, gold. That's not good mentally. They enjoy the hard work and what they're doing, and they're going to go to the Olympics and come away without any regret.”
Despite the World Rugby Series Sevens being on hold until at least after the Olympic Games, Australia has managed to play in local tournaments as they continue their Road to Tokyo 2020. In February, they were part of the Festival of Rugby in Narrabri then Armidale, New South Wales.
And from a training standpoint, Walsh is happy with where the team are physically with recent national testing showing they were the fittest amongst the Rugby Australia cohort – including the 15s players.
“They’re going to do everything they can to represent Australia, represent rugby, and they're going to enjoy the experience by performing. There's no question about that. We're going to the Olympics to perform and the outcome is going to be a podium.”