Critics silenced: Nothing 'soft' about Australia's golden girls

Did you see that, Ric Charlesworth?

Two years after the distinguished former Australian hockey player and coach discounted their blood, sweat and tears at the Rio Olympics as a "soft" gold medal, the Australian women sevens team just played him into irrelevance.

Thirty-five tries, a history-making 213 unanswered points and a thrilling performance against New Zealand to take out the Sydney Sevens title and cement their spot at the top of the world series leaderboard.

You said the rest of the world would catch up, Ric. They did, for a time. We saw the tears in Sydney last year, when the inevitable post-Rio performance dip came knocking and the women let their focus widen to take in the sideshow of gender politics and pay parity that accompanied last year's sold-out event.

We saw how much it hurt. But it's what Sharni, Shannon, Alicia, Emilee, Charlotte, Evania, Ellia, Emma and their sisters did next that defines them. They dug in, clawed their way back and finished second across the series. If you saw how hard the Black Ferns worked to purge the taste of silver from their mouths last year, second was a good result.

The Australians opened their 2017/18 campaign with a win in Dubai and went into camp in Sydney quietly confident. They were registering personal bests across a clutch of metrics in training. Their focus had narrowed. And this time the sport had their back, ensuring, with equal pay and every game in the main stadium, that Australia's sevens program and the Sydney tournament were worthy of the women's wholehearted commitment to their sport, their country and each other.

The proof was there for all to see on Sunday in the form of a 31-0 masterclass. New Zealand were the more assured package leading into the final. Their group outings were full of the clinical, hard-edged rugby for which they are known while the Australians looked energetic and physical but not wholly accurate. It was hard to imagine how the home side could quiet the imperious force of Black Ferns winger and try-scoring machine Portia Woodman, especially after learning the Kiwis had the Maori gods on their side as well as 12 of the world's best players.

And yet by about 3pm on Sunday Australia had done just that, relegating the reigning world champions to the role of spectators as they racked up five tries without answer.

Nothing "soft" about that, Ric.

It is 18 months since sevens debuted at the Olympics. Rugby programs in England, Canada, Russia, Ireland, France and USA are cashed up and building nicely towards this year's Sevens World Cup in San Francisco and the 2020 Olympics in Japan.

Wins won't come any easier for Australia. For the second time since winning gold in Rio, they will find themselves with targets on their backs. They will also bid farewell to coach Tim Walsh after the Commonwealth Games in April. It will be like losing a limb for a time, so intrinsic to their journey has Walsh been these past four years.

It will be a tricky transition to navigate. Certainly no place for the soft. Nor the small of heart.

This story Critics silenced: Nothing 'soft' about Australia's golden girls first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.