The inaugural AON Uni 7s series represented a wonderful opportunity for the Australian Women’s Rugby Sevens players to gain some crucial match practice ahead of a huge 2017-2018 season.
With the World Rugby Sevens Series set to kick off in Dubai next month, as well as the Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast and the Rugby Sevens World Cup in San Francisco, the Uni 7s also gave coach Tim Walsh and his team the opportunity to look at some fresh talent, with six uncapped players selected for this week’s five-match series against New Zealand in Bendigo.
Further to that, it also gave one of Australian Rugby’s moss dedicated and longest serving players the opportunity to gain critical coaching experience, as he prepares to transition away from playing professional Rugby.
34-year-old James ‘Chucky’ Stannard made his maiden Super Rugby appearance for the Western Force back in 2008, after starring for the Perth Spirit in the 2007 Australian Rugby Championship, and went on to make 31 appearances for the Force and Brumbies during a five year Super Rugby career, playing Rugby Sevens for Australia at the same time and winning a Silver Medal at the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi as well as heading to the 2013 Rugby Sevens World Cup in Moscow.
A stint in Japan followed, before Stannard returned to Australia and joined the Rugby Sevens program fulltime, winning a Bronze Medal in Glasgow at the 2014 Commonwealth Games and heading to the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro last year. Chucky became his country’s all-time leading point scorer on the World Series in 2016, currently sitting on 794 career points on the circuit, but now the end is nigh and whether it is at the end of this season or the one after, Chucky understands his own mortality.
It was with that in mind that Chucky accepted an offer from Macquarie Uni Sydney Rays’ Head Coach Nathan McMahon to be his Assistant Coach for the inaugural Uni 7s Series, helping to lead them to an impressive third-placed finish overall as Uni of Queensland whitewashed the competition in an astonishing unbeaten campaign.
“That was my first go of coaching, and I really enjoyed it,” Stannard said. “I didn’t expect to have as much fun as I did, but the girls made it a lot easier as they were so skilful and so easy to get along with. I loved being involved with the Rays.
“Nathan is such an easy guy to work with; he basically told me to take care of the attack, and he’d take the defence, but he created a great culture among the girls which made it even easier for the young girls to come through and the experienced girls to shine. The new competition is a genuine stepping stone for the girls to go to the next level, I’m a big fan of it!”
Stannard, who’d already worked with the Australian Women’s Rugby Sevens team as a Kicking Coach, had a huge influence on the Rays, according to star player Chloe Dalton.
“Chucky demands respect naturally because of his playing experience, and because of how long he has been playing professionally,” Dalton told RUPA. “He has so much knowledge about Rugby, and even the girls in the squad who hadn’t been around Rugby for a long time understood what he has achieved and what he could contribute to the group.”
Chucky is known for having a constant smile on his face, unless you’re a teammate who has happened to fall short of expectations on either the training field or in a game, however Dalton said his personality lent itself expertly to the role.
“I think he was able to have a few jokes, which the girls loved, but he was also able to switch into the professional coaching mode and get serious. It’s different in terms of the team culture and balance from what he is used to with the men, but the girls really respected him and he provided a great balance between having fun and switching when it’s time to focus.”
On that note, current Australian Men’s Rugby Sevens Captain Lewis Holland, a long-time teammate of Stannard’s, has noticed a positive change in his good mate following on from his first coaching stint.
“Coaching allows you to see things with a different set of eyes than when you’re playing, and I think the (Uni 7s) experience has helped make Chucky a lot more calm and collected as we prepare for the upcoming season,” Holland said. “The way he goes about teaching the young guys and explaining things to them so that they grasp the concept, you can really see how much time he is putting into communicating effectively.”
Stannard agreed with his skipper, though stopped short of saying old age had contributed to his mellowing out!
“I do think I am a bit calmer when I explain things to the boys now, and I use a lot less foul language!” he laughs.
“My communication and leadership skills within the team have improved as a result of the opportunity I had with the Rays, and now I’m focused on helping to lead the boys down the right path this season.”
That focus on communication also worked hand in hand with his experience in getting the right messages across to the squad during the Uni 7s series, according to Chloe.
“At half time, when everybody is exhausted and trying to catch their breath, Chucky understands what it’s like and knows it is hard to take in everything that the coach is saying,” she said. “He tailored his messages and his delivery to be very concise and did a great job of consolidating the information and finding the important stuff to get everybody on the same page. He managed to regularly calm everybody down and get his message across effectively.”
Showing how highly he valued his role and the Uni 7s series competition Stannard organised for his cousin, three-time Olympian diver Mellissa Wu, to present the Rays with their playing jerseys ahead of Round Two, an extra touch which blew Dalton away.
“I found it awesome on a personal level to hear her story; she has already been to three Olympics and four Commonwealth Games and she’s only 25 years old, which blows my mind and makes me feel I haven’t achieved much at all!” Dalton said.
“The whole squad really enjoyed it and she had some great advice around injury management, mental resilience and surrounding yourself with the right people in your corner.”
As for what’s next, and Holland makes it very clear that he doesn’t want to see Stannard take his eyes off the prize just yet; he has plenty to contribute on the field for the Australian Men this season, after being one of just two players to feature in all ten World Series tournaments last year.
“We have a very young group, and his performances last year where he was our most consistent player showed that he leads by example,” Holland said. “He’s still playing very good footy, and he still has a calm head on him and knows what to do. This year, you’ll see him still try and push the boundaries and chase down everything and never give up. Those young guys can learn how to be in control from Chucky.”
Beyond that, however, and Dalton has no doubt he is capable of climbing the coaching ladder quickly and being a success wherever he lands.
“He would absolutely make a really good career coach,” Dalton says. “He’s a great guy and has so much knowledge and experience behind him.
Holland agrees, and believes Chucky personality will help him unlock lots of opportunities.
“I know his goal is to try and get something coaching in Rugby Sevens, and whether or not that is in Australia he will make a success of it wherever he goes,” Holland said. He is a boilermaker by trade but I think he is pretty keen to leave the sticks alone and take out the notepad!
“He is very respected on the global circuit, and everybody knows him and gets along with him very well. Everybody respects him; they know he’s the kind of guy who lost a tooth during a game, and chucked it in his pocket and kept playing.
“He’s close with the likes of (All Blacks Sevens legend) DJ Forbes and some of the British guys who are the same vintage as well and rate him very highly, so you know that he will have options outside of Australia when he does decide to coach full time. He’s made a lot of mates and makes genuine connections, so I think he’ll go very well indeed.”
Stannard knows he’s timed his run expertly, as Rugby Sevens goes from strength to strength on the back of Olympic Games inclusion.
“It would be great to get an opportunity somewhere, whether it was in Australia or overseas,” he said. “I have done my Level One & Two courses, and an emerging coaches course last year, and I am looking to complete my Level Three and get a job after Rugby. I want to stay in the game when I do retire, and coaching is a good avenue to go down.
“It’s a good time to retire with the game growing so much overseas and into new markets. There are good opportunities everywhere, from Germany to Chile to Hong Kong to Portugal, so it comes down to finding the right place and working out what’s best for your career and your family.
“I think I have a lot to offer in Rugby Sevens specifically, and then maybe I’d be able to transfer that to fifteens down the track.”
With his proven track record of success, we’re certainly not betting against it.