by Sean Burns | Twitter
Fans of lacrosse, please make a note of the following fact: the
Sharks are NOT extinct.
Not that you’d know of it, given how little people have spoken of the Australia lacrosse team in the months leading up to this summer’s Federation of International Lacrosse World Championship, presented by Trusted Choice.
As always, the two-headed monster that is the United States vs. Canada rivalry takes center stage. And certainly, it's understandable that the Iroquois National team has also dominated much of the pre-tournament conversation due to the double-whammy of its missing 2010’s FIL games in Manchester, England and the emergence of stars like Cody Jamieson and Miles and Lyle Thompson.
But that doesn’t change the fact that Australia has never finished lower than third in a senior world games, taking home bronze or silver in each of the ten times the event has been contested. In 2010, the Sharks were No. 3 behind the U.S. and Canada, while their most recent silver was in 1994. The Iroquois, talented though they may be, have finished fourth in each tournament they've competed in since 1998 at the senior level.
“We relish the challenge,” says defender Callum Robinson, a NCAA Division III first-team All-American for Stevenson this spring who is playing for the Aussie side for the first time. “We don’t get much international recognition, and we know that the Iroquois are going to be a real tough squad, and we’ll have our work cut out for us, just like four years ago in Manchester. But we’ll be ready for it.”
With the other Blue Division heavyweights all sporting first-rate offensive groups, the key to keeping that run of success at the senior world level alive will probably rest with Australia’s defensive crew. Thankfully, that group has a mixture of young talent like Robinson – nicknamed “Big Koala” due to his 6-foot-5, 248-pound frame – and veterans like John Tokarua, an All-World selection in 2006 who has played with the Sharks at the world level four times previously – on the 1996 U-19 squad and the senior team in 2002, 2006 and 2010.
Keith Nyberg and Brad Sheldon also provide on-field leadership with plenty of experience with Andrew Ham, Callum Mortimer, Ross Hamilton and Robinson bringing the ‘youthful energy’ that teams need in a grinding tournament like what will unfold in Denver, according to Tokarua.
In net, the Sharks will be anchored by the two-man group of Warren Brown – a 2002 and 2006 world games veteran, along with Tom Vickery, who played strong in a tour of Japan earlier this spring.
“Having players come back for their second (or beyond) tournament, I think will greatly increase [what we can do] in the Blue Division,” Tokarua said. “Australian players at this level get progressively better prior to departing for a World Championships, because we put a heavy emphasis on physical condition… Defensively, teams can really only hope to lessen the impact of the athletes on other teams, and that’s how we’ll be applying pressure.”
Their overall defensive philosophy stems mostly from not diverging from the game plan early and trying to do more than is sound. Robinson says that defensive coach Murray King stresses getting into a grinding style early in the contest and not trying to do too much against the plethora of talented offensive players that everybody in the top division will be bringing to Denver. Once the standard has been established, the Sharks will hopefully be able to then get out on player's hands more and more as the game progresses, using their fitness to wear opponents down – if all goes to plan.
To that end, the squad has a solid timeline established to make sure they’re at top form when they make it to Denver. The team travels to Los Angeles in late June to get a camp together and start the team process. From there, they head to Vail, where they’ll participate in the Vail Shootout that takes place over the 4th of July holiday to acclimate to the altitude and be prepared for the toll that playing at a mile high can have on athletes.
Schedule-wise, Australia opens with Japan on Friday, July 11, and its pool play date vs. the defending champion U.S. men is the next day. Australia's date with the Iroquois looms as the nightcap of Monday, July 14 action.
No matter what, the Aussies are thrilled to be making the trek to the Mile High City to represent their country, ready to don their trademark green blazers for the opening ceremonies and remind everyone that they’re still one of the top sides in the world, even if it takes them getting on the field at the biggest tournament the world has ever seen to remind us of that fact.
“I’m the first person from my family to represent Australia in sport,” says Robinson. “Thre’s been a lot of hard work to get here, but I will finally get to wear that green and gold jersey, and there’s no greater honor.”