Australia's Olympic champion women's sevens players say they have left behind last year's painful "kick up the arse" and are ready to perform at the Sydney Sevens next week.
The all-conquering Australians were greeted with a standing ovation at a warm-up run at last year's world series tournament, such was their star power after winning gold in Rio in 2016. But in a painful comedown from that golden year, the women failed to produce their best on the field and bowed out in the semi-finals in front of the Allianz Stadium crowd.
They rescued their season to finish a respectable second in the series standings last year but, with punishingly high standards, they are desperate to go one better this time. A cup win in Dubai last month kicked off their season in fine fashion and coach Tim Walsh said the squad was older and wiser, not to mention fitter and faster, heading into the Sydney leg.
"It was a kick up the arse but we were proud of the way we performed at certain times that season," Walsh said. "Coming to Sydney [last year] was a completely different pressure from going to Rio as No.1. This was home pressure, post-Rio pressure, and it was challenging. We all were very disappointed, not because we didn't win but because we didn't play our best. That was what hurt the most."
There was also the pressure that comes with recognition. People stopping to stare or reach out to touch the gold medal winners, and the public assumption that wins would come easy in front of a home crowd.
"It shows you how much the game has grown, it was an experience they'd never had to deal with before," Walsh said. "There were things we took away from that. Look at the way they played in Dubai, leading into that they were faster, quicker, leaner; we had different strategies to the way we played and they executed it really well."
The women are also set to welcome back experienced guns Alicia Quirk and Ellia Green, both of whom were integral members of the squad in Rio. Both players had their first run on Thursday in trial games against Ireland and Japan. Green, who had a knee reconstruction last year, will be monitored over the coming days to confirm her fitness for Sydney.
Walsh, meanwhile, is savouring every moment with the team he built and took to Rio. The former Reds player and Australian sevens representative announced he would step down after the Commonwealth Games in April. In yet another indication of the growing strength of the abbreviated rugby format, Walsh said he wanted to stay coaching sevens instead of looking for a role on the more established 15s circuit.
"I'd like to stay in sevens, I love the game and where it's going," he said. "I wouldn't say no to 15s but sevens is certainly where I'd like to continue now. Everything you do is magnified. As a coach I do the ruck, the scrum, you're a manager, you're an analyst, you're always challenged."
As for coaching another women's team, Walsh speaks from the heart.
"I'm open but I think it would be very hard to coach a women's team against [Australia], I'm too attached and invested in them," he said.
"It would be good to coach a men's team. I did it for a little while through the Olympic qualification period and it challenged me in a different way. That would be the preferred option."