The University of Adelaide Roma’s have enjoyed the most successful season of their brief history, finishing in outright fifth in the Aon Uni7s series after accumulating a total of 50 competition points.
The team was consistent across the four rounds of the competition, finishing fifth in each of the first three rounds, before narrowly missing out on what would have been a maiden Aon series medal in round 4, to equal their highest ever finish in fourth place.
For coach and program director James O’Keefe, the year as a whole was a success, and a final round semi-final qualification was just reward for the groups hard work across the season.
“Canberra [the final round] was standout tournament for us, going undefeated in the minor rounds beating the tournament hosts University of Canberra and the University of Sydney very convincingly in our first 2 matches set us up for a good campaign,” he says.
The girls continued this standard through the playoff matches and were unlucky to lose their semi final by 3 points to eventual overall series champion the University of Queensland, and equally unfortunate to be defeated in overtime by the University of Canberra in the third-place playoff.
Having come so close to a richly deserved medal in the nation’s capital, mixed emotions are to be expected, but the prevailing feeling of O’Keefe was one of pride in his playing group.
“Mixed emotions in that one but I told the girls it’s literally the bounce of the ball and it goes either way, and that time it didn’t go our way, so they were all happy overall with the result and so was I,” O’Keefe continues.
The coach says that having their best result in the final round of the season is indicative of the continued hard work of the squad across the entire season, which on the whole he assesses as a success.
“Overall, we have seen a 25% increase in our win rate from 2018 to 2019, and there was a 15% jump the year before as well, so there is a good curve there in terms of player development with a core group of 10 or 12 girls moving through since the inception of the program,” he says.
“On field has been very successful, a lot of players have developed well with another year under their belt and we have been matching it more with some of the dominant teams, so in the first year we got run off the park pretty easily, last year we drew a bit closer and this year it was within 7 points every match really.”
18 players took to the field for the Roma’s across the four rounds of the Aon series, but O’Keefe says the success and development of the team’s results is largely down to a collective effort from the squad as a whole.
“The squad is essentially 24 or 25, pushing that to 30 with the development players. Not all the players get their opportunity as we are performance outcome-based program, but we really need to acknowledge and appreciate the work those behind the scenes were doing, coming out to training every week and giving it their all,” the coach says.
“They are really the ones who give us the strength to perform at the level, it really is a whole squad effort.”
2019 was equally successful off the field for the Roma’s, as the program scaled previous uncharted territories on multiple fronts.
Firstly, the squad partook in their first overseas tour to Japan as part of their pre-season. The experience was not without its challenges, but for O’Keefe it was an important step in the group’s development.
“To go to Japan, for our very first overseas tour, was one of the highlights of the year for me,” he says.
“Unfortunately, we were cruelled by injury on the first day and had to play the remainder of the tournament with 8 players, which is one of the most taxing experiences for any team, but nonetheless a great experience for the girls who toured. We are looking to do that again, a little differently in 2020.”
Another important landmark the Roma’s achieved in 2019 was their first piece of silverware, coming in their final pre-season hit out before round 1 of the Aon Series, in the Shute Shield Sevens in Sydney.
“To go over there and get our first piece of silverware for the program was nice, and a great way to get into the season,” the coach says.
Those who kept even a casual eye on the Roma’s 2019 progression would be aware of the on-field impact the teams 3 internationals Jasmine Joyce, Alisha Butchers and Hannah Jones. However, they may not be aware of the impact the trio (who are all internationally capped by Wales) had off the field on the squad as a whole.
“Having the three Welsh girls over highlighted to the squad just how hard you have to work, seeing all the extra prep work they do, and highlighted the dedication you need to make it at that next level,” O’Keefe says.
The impact of Joyce on the field was particularly telling, and she was justifiably rewarded for her outstanding form across the three rounds in which she featured with selection in the Dream Team - a composite side of the best players from across the Aon Uni7s competition. The coach marks this as a meritorious achievement both for Joyce and the squad as a collective.
“After playing the first 3 rounds and scoring I think it was 31 or 32 tries, Jaz would have been one of the highest point’s scorers in the comp, which is testament to her general athletic ability and sevens smarts and she absolutely deserved to be selected [in the dream team],” he says.
Joyce's form was also rewarded for her form by being named the Player's Player of the series. Other award winners included Lauren Meyer (Best Tackler), Courtney Munro (Most Improved) and Ellie Konopka (Coaches Award).
The prestigious Dame Roma Mitchell Award, which is awarded to the player which best displays the attributes of courage, fearless defence, finding ways through and for a sense of fun, was awarded to d’Arcy Sadler. O’Keefe says the award is richly deserved after an excellent season both on and off-the field.
“d’Arcy had a fantastic year this year… her performances on field were really game changing, so she’s done really well,” he says.
Having missed the Canberra leg of the series due to injury, Sadler took the reins as assistant coach for the weekend and O’Keefe light-heartedly suggests that all the corresponding success of that weekend should be credited to her.
Sadler, along with Ellie Konopka and Lauren Potter, acted as co-captains in 2019, and the coach says the manner in which they combined to lead the squad was outstanding.
“Potts is the experienced head; she drove the girls standards on and off the field. d’Arcy has a great brain for rugby sevens and Ellie being one of the locals who only started in 2017 has come a long way on and off the field and she has played some great rugby this year… they led the side really well all year.”
Looking forward to 2020, O’Keefe says the squad will look to further build this year and continue to strive for excellence in their results.
“2020 again, the goal simply is a medal. Its alluded us for 3 years now, 2 fourth placings, so with the curve of our performances and the experiences of the girls, I think we will hopefully get there, but that’s definitely the goal for 2020,” he says.
With this goal in mind, the coach says he is already on the lookout for new players to strengthen and refresh the squad in 2020.
I think a number of players will return… but we will also be looking for that next generation of players. So, from now until about May I will be out looking at different sports, to see who I can find who will fit the mould. So hopefully next season when we have trials again, and we’ll see a large contingent of new players.”
The task of bringing new players through is potentially more difficult for the Roma’s then some of their rivals, given they are based in a non-Rugby state. This is something which the Roma’s support staff is aware of and trying to address ahead of future campaigns.
“The biggest key with a lot of teams is that they were starting to blood a lot of 16 and 17 year old’s, which we don’t have here because we have no specific local competition for girls aged 12-18 which is continually going to be a problem,” O’Keefe says.
“We have been in discussions with Rugby SA and Rugby Australia since March about the obvious gap in participation for females. In order to sustain success, we may have to expand our operations in school/community participation, so that will be an interesting space to work in.”
In the absence of any formal underage competition, the coach says that Roma’s will in the short term continue their previously well executed strategy of scouting potential players from other sports. However, this is a practice which is becoming more difficult to complete successfully.
“It’s a lot harder, especially now with the increase in profile of women’s sport, there’s a lot more offerings, so the pool of players we are looking for who are genetically pre-disposed to sevens is getting smaller and smaller, so we’ve just got to look in different places,” he says.
With the 2019 season now complete, O’Keefe readily expresses his thanks to Roma’s support team, without whom he says the program simply couldn’t function.
“Without the support team, the successes wouldn’t be possible after a challenging year in some aspects,” he says.
“I’ve got to thank Kim Evans, our manager, Troy Doughty our assistant coach, Alex Walwyn our photographer, our physiotherapist Lauren Sebastiani, also Gerard Dutton from an strength and conditioning perspective, Jack Curtin and Alex Rokobaro who flew in and out for trainings to help when needed and give a different voice."