Globally, rugby is booming.
A successful 2015 World Cup is to thank, with participation rates and playing standards rapidly improving in all corners.
The introduction of Rugby Sevens at the Rio Olympic Games is another shot in the arm, particularly in Australia.
The domestic game continues to struggle for breathing space in a crowded market dominated by AFL, NRL and the consolidation of the A-League.
But in Tim Walsh’s captivating and world No.1-ranked women’s Sevens team, Australians have a team to get excited about.
In the absence of a Bledisloe Cup win that some teenagers weren’t alive for (Australia last won in 2002) or consistent Super Rugby success, it is clear to see why Australian Rugby Union (ARU) CEO Bill Pulver craves success for these girls.
And he’s getting it: Australia won the 2015-16 World Series title in France last month.
An Australian public conditioned to looking to the pool for its Olympic golden girls may be in for a surprise, as the breathtaking nature of Rugby Sevens is likely to take Rio by storm.
Both the men’s and women’s competitions will be among the most fiercely contested medals at the Games.
Australia’s women’s team comprises of mothers, radiographers, students, teachers and captain Sharni Williams is a mechanic – a potential godsend should the team bus overheat in Rio de Janeiro’s congested traffic.
Fijian-born Ellia Green is sure to catch the eye with her devastating speed and then there’s Queensland’s Emilee Cherry, voted 2014 World Sevens Player of the Year.
An Olympic gold medal would be a far cry from her first game of rugby, where she blushingly recalls to The New Daily how she was reduced to tears.
“An opponent pushed me in the back after I scored a try. I burst into tears,” she said.
“There is a lot of increased attention [on the team] around the Olympics, but we remain disciplined.
“If there is pressure, it is external. The team is simply focused on getting the job done.”
The side’s continuing emergence is timely, in light of the release of the ARU’s ‘2016-2020 Strategic Plan’ where Pulver identified female engagement as one key initiative to help turn around a $9.8m operating loss in 2015, and a drop in participation rates for 15-a-side club rugby of 7.6 per cent on 2014 levels.
Rugby currently lacks the war chests of the AFL and NRL, and any meaningful free-to-air TV presence, but a new $270m rights deal from Fox Sports – centred on Super Rugby – at least offers some breathing space.
In that context, assuming traditional supporters and diehards aren’t left behind, for the ARU to hone in on the appeal and potential success of its women’s Sevens team makes perfect sense.
Cherry understands this perfectly and hailed the ARU’s commitment to helping the women achieve Sevens glory.
“The ARU has been fantastic in supporting us to become full-time athletes,” she said.
“[We are now] based at the Narrabeen Academy of Sport, in Sydney. They are also pushing hard to have an Australian leg added to the World Series program, which would be a tremendous boost for our sport here in Australia.”
Participation rates for women’s rugby are increasing and, through this initiative, the ARU is talking directly to mothers, who are responsible for making decisions about which sports their children adopt.
The more they like rugby, then the more likely they will be to encourage their children to play.
And Rugby Sevens is an attractive, appealing game. Rio marks its Olympic debut and, with it, an opportunity to win over millions of people being exposed to rugby – in any form – for the first time.
Almost certainly, viewers will be surprised by its athleticism, physicality, skill and intensity.
In addition to growing the women’s game, if the ARU is nimble and smart enough to translate new female interest into engagement with the Wallabies, Super Rugby franchises and local clubs and schools, then it is an initiative worth pursuing.
Australia’s women’s side is a deserved favourite and clearly has a strong collective will to succeed on what is the biggest stage.
Meanwhile, for the ARU, success in Rio may ultimately mean much more than an Olympic gold medal.