MELBOURNE: The COVID-19 pandemic has torn up Olympic rugby sevens programmes across the globe but gold medal-winning coach Tim Walsh sees a glimmer of hope amid the gloom as he battles to prepare Australia for the Tokyo Games in a year's time.
Walsh, who guided Australia's women to the inaugural sevens title at Rio, is a self-described "full-time coach on part-time wages", marshalling a reduced men's squad that were building nicely for the Games until they were postponed to 2021.
The health crisis brought an abrupt end to the World Rugby Sevens Series and has made forward planning incredibly difficult, with the first two legs of the 2020/21 series scheduled for November and December in Dubai and Cape Town already cancelled.
Budget cuts have left Walsh's players earning about 40per cent of their pre-COVID income and shrunk the national programme close to "skeleton level".
Yet Walsh says Australia could emerge stronger from the shake-up than some of their global rivals.
"Players are going to move, coaches are going to leave, funding is getting pulled," Walsh told Reuters in an interview.
"All that planning and preparation becomes disjointed. The team that sticks together and the team that’s fit and healthy is going to be on the podium at Tokyo.
"I just see this as a huge opportunity."
Australia's rugby sevens teams were given a boost last month with the national Institute of Sport pledging a one-off grant of AUS$1.4 million (US$997,000) for the women and AUS$800,000 for the men to help them prepare for Tokyo.
While gratefully received, Walsh said the grant would only keep his programme "breathing" and he would be banging on boardroom doors to get corporate support for a team that were placed fourth when the World Series was scrapped.
"Before COVID-19 hit, we hadn’t displayed that kind of form on a World Series with that consistency for close to 10 years," said Walsh.
"So it was a pretty good trajectory we were on. It’s very important that we hold onto that.
"We’re fighting the good fight and we won’t stop fighting. We’re always in meetings and engaging stakeholders or relationships that can support us and hopefully be part of the good story that’s going to eventuate in 2021."
The outlook is gloomier for other rugby sevens nations, with England's players, who made up the bulk of Britain's silver medal-winning men's team in Rio, set to lose their contracts at the end of the month due to budget cuts.
South Africa's high performance manager also warned their sevens programme faces a "big financial impact" from the COVID-19 disruptions.
Even powerhouse New Zealand has not been immune, with pay-cuts across the board for players in sevens and 15s rugby.
Financial challenges aside, Walsh is drawing hope from his country's geographic location and the possibility of a travel "bubble" opening with New Zealand as well as Fiji, whose men's team won the gold at Rio.
Australia is battling a second wave of COVID-19 concentrated in the southern state of Victoria but other states have all but eradicated the virus.
New Zealand recorded its first four cases in over 100 days on Tuesday, while Fiji has recorded less than 30 cases, the last over two weeks ago.
Having the chance to warm up for the Olympics with matches against the Pacific sevens powers would only help Australia's medal quest in Tokyo, said Walsh.
"They're arguably two of the best teams in the world," he said.
"Hopefully we can get some game-time there, get better and start to make a bigger gap on the rest of the world."
(US$1 = 1.4035 Australian dollars)
(Editing by Peter Rutherford)