x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Johnson prepares to steer Gulf through pool stage

Captain is confident the ladies team can mix it with the best and have recovered from the disappointment of missing out on automatic qualification.

The Arabian Gulf women's rugby team (red and blue ) and USA compete in a warm-up match.
The Arabian Gulf women's rugby team (red and blue ) and USA compete in a warm-up match.

The Arabian Gulf Rugby Football Union's (AGRFU) women expect to make it through the pool stages at this weekend's Dubai Rugby Sevens, according to captain Bridie Johnson. The captain, whose team turned out for a full-contact training match against the USA at The Sevens yesterday, said a mixture of new and experienced players would work to the Gulf's advantage when they face the Kenya Lionesses in their opening match tomorrow.

"We went through a bit of a change after the Hong Kong qualifiers for the World Cup Sevens and now we have some really talented new players as well as the senior members who have been in the team for the past three or four years," she said. "We have been training well together and feel confident of getting through the pool stage." The Arabian Gulf were not given automatic qualification to the World Cup Sevens, held in Dubai in March, and failed to earn a place in the line-up through the Hong Kong tournament, but Johnson says that disappointment is forgotten.

Since then, the new-look team have contested tournaments in Thailand and Hong Kong, making it to the final in the Bangkok International Sevens but just missing out to Kazakhstan Olympic. Their coach, Shane Thornton, can also be considered a new face, having only had three weeks with the woman's team and nine weeks with the men. "It's not very long to get a feel for a team but they have got a really good fitness base and we have been working on skills and putting everything together as a unit," he said. "The main focus has been to get them working together as a team."

Thornton suffered a few days of worry when Johnson was laid up in bed with a stomach bug, throwing her participation in the tournament into doubt. "She has been very sick for the past few days and that was a big concern for us all, but I reckon she's back to 80 per cent now and in the next few days she'll get back to full fitness," he said. With the might of Kenya Lionesses, Wooden Spoon Rugby, Rugby Ecosse and Georgia National, in their pool, Thornton and Johnson know every player will have to perform to their full potential if they are to progress to the knock-out stages.

Meanwhile, the imposing Americans put in a dominant, aggressive performance yesterday as they got the better of the Gulf 34-7 in a game that was made up of three seven-minute periods, with one player, Lauren Shaughnessy, proving to have devastating pace and lighting reflexes on the wing. Her impressive skills are newly learned however; the 24-year-old has only played rugby for five months after switching from top-flight college basketball to sevens. "She's one to look out for," said the American captain, Ines Rodriguez of the red-booted player. "We are an athletic team and that's a side of our game that we always work on."

Like the Gulf, the US, semi-finalists last year, are fielding a team much changed from the one who played in the World Cup Sevens, and Rodriguez says acclimatising new players to international rugby will be key. "We are essentially a young team," she said. "We assume a lot of the other teams are in the same boat. This is the biggest challenge a lot of our players have faced." @Email:stregoning@thenational.ae