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Pressure on Black Fern Sevens to win gold

Having played for Samoa on the Women's World Sevens Series circuit, LockerRoom's new columnist, Taylah Hodson-Tomokino, knows the inner workings of a sevens side, and says the Black Ferns will be seeking redemption on the Gold Coast. 

While New Zealanders mull over whether or not the Silver Ferns will win a medal on the Gold Coast, the question asked of the Black Ferns Sevens is: What colour medal will they win?

As the reigning world champions and winners of the 2016-17 Sevens World Series circuit, high expectations have been bestowed upon this team.

Their recent accomplishments have overshadowed those of the All Blacks Sevens team, with many rugby fans now pinning their sevens gold medal hopes on the women.

For the Black Ferns Sevens, these Commonwealth Games are a chance for redemption. After a bitterly disappointing end to their four-year ‘Go4Gold’ Olympic campaign at the hands of Australia, the team remarkably bounced back to defeat the Aussies in their next five meetings.

Fuelled by vengeance, the Black Ferns Sevens went on to dominate the 2016-17 series, winning five of the six tournaments on the circuit. Although defending the World Series title didn’t carry the same esteem as an Olympic gold medal, it sent a reminder to the world that the Black Ferns Sevens were still the benchmark in women’s rugby.

But our women would be the first to admit they’ve failed to fire a shot this season. They didn’t proceed past the quarterfinal stage in Dubai and, in February, they were on the receiving end of a 31-0 flogging from Australia in the Sydney Sevens final. As a result, Australia became the first team in the series history to go through an entire tournament without conceding a single point.

Suffering a heavy defeat to Australia on the world stage is a nightmare no Kiwi athlete wants to relive. And that’s where the Black Ferns will find their silver lining. After the Olympic loss, we saw a rejuvenated sevens side return to the team of old. After the recent heavy loss to Australia, I believe we will see that same determination and resilience on the Gold Coast this weekend.

With the Rugby Sevens World Cup looming in July, the Black Ferns must win the Commonwealth Games to halt the Australians’ momentum. More importantly, it will give the New Zealand women a much needed mental edge for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.

After winning gold in the individual 200m medley, Sophie Pascoe explained that, for many of the athletes like herself, the Commonwealth Games was a stepping stone to Tokyo. The Black Ferns Sevens are well aware of this.

The Commonwealth Games mimic the Olympics on a smaller scale: the format, the athlete village and the pressure to perform.

Adding to that pressure, the Black Ferns’ build-up was disrupted by a mumps outbreak in camp on the Sunshine Coast. The team had to adapt quickly to train and play in isolation. The virus outbreak tested the versatility of the players and management team, and consequently brought the team closer together during their days confined to restricted areas.

The game of rugby sevens itself encompasses a high-pressure environment. With only seven players on the field, your performance is open to intense scrutiny from spectators. As if having the weight of your country on your shoulders wasn’t enough, the most pressure comes from not wanting to let your teammates down.

Labeling themselves the ‘Sevens Sisters', the Black Ferns Sevens have a team culture to be envious of. The squad members have made enormous sacrifices in their commitment to the team.

Niall Williams, mother of two, relocated her young family to Mount Maunganui, where the team is based. Theresa Fitzpatrick has also put her Bachelor of Medicine studies on hold.

To put it in to perspective, eight of the 13-strong Commonwealth Games squad have voluntarily moved to the Mount, leaving the comfort of their families and familiar surroundings to put their best foot forward in the black jersey.

The success of both the Black Ferns and the sevens team reflects on the record number of females who signed up to play rugby in 2017. It’s no secret that the Black Ferns don’t have the same resources or pay parity as the men’s national side.

Victory at the Commonwealth Games will show New Zealand Rugby that their recent efforts towards creating professional pathways for the women are well worthwhile. 

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