Silver linings playbook: Ward preparing for Australian debut, massive year ahead

BIG THINGS AHEAD: Hunter Ward is preparing for the biggest year of his career, starting with the World Schools Sevens Series. Photo: ANDREW MURRAY
BIG THINGS AHEAD: Hunter Ward is preparing for the biggest year of his career, starting with the World Schools Sevens Series. Photo: ANDREW MURRAY

The best of judges were surprised when Orange City Lions product Hunter Ward wasn’t named in this year’s Australian Schoolboys side after several huge performances for NSW, but even though he missed out his showing didn’t go unnoticed.

Ward’s Australian Schools Championship effort has still opened plenty of doors, in fact, it’s the main reason he’s staring down the barrel of the biggest 12 months of his life.

He’s landed gigs in Australia’s sevens equivalent, NSW’s under 20s squad and senior sevens side, and it also helped him cement a spot with the Manly Marlins.

“It’s all a bit of a silver lining after missing out on the [Australian Schoolboys squad, which is great,” Ward said.

“I’m looking forward to all of it, it’s all great experience.”

Ward’s journey begins with the World Schools Sevens Series, his Australian side is trying to defend last year’s gold medal win.

The 18-year-old, who has just finished his studies at St Stanislaus College Bathurst, landed in Brisbane yesterday, where his Australian side is putting the finishing touches on its preparation for next week’s tournament in Auckland.

“I didn’t get picked in the original Australian squad, but got asked into it after the [Australian Schools Championship],” Ward explained.

“It was a bit of surprise when they asked me into the squad, but obviously it’s great to get that second chance, it’s a great opportunity, a great platform.”

Ward goes into the tournament on the back of last week’s senior National Sevens Championship, where his NSW side showed glimpses of brilliance but ultimately battled it out for the minor placings

That was just his second real experience in the modified format of the sport, he – and fellow Orange City and Stannies product Yool Yool – helped NSW to last year’s youth title.

“The [2016 Youth National Championship] was my first real experience with sevens so I learned a lot more about the game last week,” Ward said.

“There’s definitely pressure in terms of us trying to defend that title. I think there’s five NSW guys in the squad of 12 so we’re reasonably familiar with each other.

“Personally, I’m looking at it as a real stepping stone as well.”

BARNSTORMING: Hunter Ward's 2017 highlights from Stannies' ISA-winning campaign.

Ward’s side will face New Zealand, New Zealand Maori, New Zealand Fiji, Cook Islands, Canada, Samoa Barbarians and Tonga Barbarians at the world championship, before he returns to NSW’s under 20s set-up.

“We started training about three weeks ago, it’s been good, definitely a step up from school rugby and the games I played with Orange City last season,” Ward said.

The NSW squad will be cut down prior to the this year’s national championship, from which the Australian side will be picked.

Making the NSW side then potentially the Australian side are goals, Ward said, but his sevens success has left him somewhat torn between the two formats.

“Sevens is the game for the future I think, and after all this I’m probably 50-50 on which I prefer. I’d love to keep playing both at a good level though obviously,” he said.

The World Schools Sevens Series kicks off on Saturday, December 16. Australia flies out next Tuesday and will play two practice games on Thursday the 14th, before the competition proper.

Following the World Schools Sevens Series and then the NSW Gen Blue program, Ward is expected to line-up in the Marlins’ colts first XV, with the potential to move into the grades depending on performance.

Yool Yool has also linked with the Marlins for the 2018 NSW Premiership Rugby season, as has Bathurst Bulldogs’ Felix Quinn.

On top of all of his success on the field, Ward said he was pleased with how he fared in his HSC and is expecting good results.

He’ll have a year off, working and playing rugby, in 2018, before weighing up his future off the field.