Keep the date July 2nd, 1999 in mind. In the fourth quarter, Quarterback David Ward throws an 11-yard TD pass to Scott Snowball, followed by a 27-yard field goal from Glenn Fenwick to help defeat Finland 10-7 in the 5th place game. Australia’s history at the IFAF World Championships begins.
Now fast forward 16 years. Following a 12-year absence from the Championships, and a disappointing 2011 campaign which most people could have predicted after the schedule was released, the Outback were no closer to adding another positive chapter.
The obvious stall in Australia’s progress on the world stage required a kickstart from elsewhere, and a tumultuous year for IFAF has proved to be the hidden godsend which has had an unprecedented optimism cultivate within the team.
The potential impact that this could have on the sport in Australia isn’t lost on Offensive Coordinator Paul Manera.
“Football in Australia will be judged on how well we perform at the World Championships,” Manera said.
“It would mean a lot for not just the team, but also for our fans, the perception of American Football and the Outback brand in Australia. This team has a chance to not only represent themselves but to also create a pathway for Aussies to follow.”
Drawing Korea in the opening game, in a revised pool system which dramatically levels the strength of schedule, has changed everything for Australia. Head Coach John Leijten knows it too.
“This first game will set the tone for the tournament,” Leijten said.
“Based on what we know of Korea we should be able to compete with them. That’s also as far as we are looking at this point.”
Korea’s preparation has been less than ideal; a surprising 28-20 loss to local side Seoul Kisan Golden Eagles only does more to help Australia believe it could win its first World Championship game since that Palermo afternoon in 1999.
Manera however believes that the heightened sense of expectation won’t play a significant factor in the team’s performance.
“It’s natural for some of our players to feel nervous for such a major tournament, but I do not think it’s going to affect the team.” Manera said.
“Good preparation is the key to success and also bonding together; working together as a team.”
Whilst Australia hasn’t had many problems with that in the past, it has just over a week upon arrival in Ohio to re-collaborate and manufacture some chemistry and momentum.
Both coaches recognised the lack of full squad training and quality competition as the major weaknesses of the team; and the only way to measure their progress is against Korea; possibly the most important game in Australia’s history.
However, the major strength that both coaches identified is suitably contrary to this; the country’s ability to fight.
“I truly believe that our biggest strength as a nation is that we are fighters and give it everything we have come game day. We play and represent our country with pride,” Leijten said.
“We are all paying our own money to coach and play for our country, and that speaks volumes for our commitment,” Manera added.
How far commitment and pride carries the side remains to be seen, but the magnitude of what could be at stake should be enough as a reserve if it doesn’t.
“It only takes one performance that will strike the hearts of other Aussies and build momentum for a better future and culture for our sport down under,” Manera said.
Australia’s first match against Korea is on July 9 at 12 noon local time (July 10 at 2am AEST) on ESPN3.
Written by Chris Guscott – @Chris_Guscott