Touch football's pride in women's sevens Olympic gold

Touch football is not part of the Olympics. But it's role in one of Australia's most glowing achievements at the Rio Games should not be under-estimated.

As Australian Rugby Union officials were celebrating their women's sevens success, so too were their Touch Football Australia counterparts; understandable considering the core of the victorious team came from their ranks.

In the 12-member Australian gold medal-winning contingent were seven notable touch footballers, many of whom converted to rugby as the Olympics was such a compelling drawcard.

Four -- Charlotte Caslick, Nicole Beck, Alicia Quirk and Emilee Cherry -- were Australian touch football representatives, with 51 Test appearances between them. Gemma Etheridge was a national mixed open representative, while Evania Pelite and Emma Tonegato were Australian Youth representatives.

What they learned and developed on the touch football field, including exceptional ball-handling and passing skills as well as knowing how to elude opponents, were vital elements in the Australian women's sevens triumph.

There was also an understanding of success, especially as the Australian women's touch football team boast one of the most impressive winning streaks in Australian sport- victors in all eight World Cup tournaments held since 1988. It's exactly the same with the Australian men's touch football team. Eight out of eight over their chief rival New Zealand.

The amateur world of Australian touch football, which has strong links with the National Rugby League competition, has power in numbers -- with more than 700,000, people, including 320,000 women, playing the game nationally. Touch Football Australia's target is one million participants in Australia by 2020.

Their officials realise the masters of their game are bound to be attracted by those able to dangle Olympic medals and professional programs in front of them- - such as the ARU. However, they argue their aim is to continue developing quality male and female athletes -- including those who can become notable rugby league performers and rugby gold medallists.

Touch Football Australia chief executive officer Colm Maguire said the organisation was "very proud of the success" of their past stars in Rio, who were able to use their touch football skills "to represent Australia on a different stage and win gold medals".

Then there was the publicity boost for their sport.

"It has been amazing that there has been so many references since the sevens win to where they've learnt the game," Maguire told ESPN.

So good news week for both women's rugby and touch football. As the Olympics heads into its second week and Australia's achievements in Rio continue to inspire, the women's sevens triumph remains a standout.

Not since the Wallabies' appearance in the 2015 World Cup final has Australian rugby enjoyed such a flourishing moment, with the women's team captivating the nation during the event and then for days afterwards. Now they even boast their own postage stamp.

While the Australian women indicated back in 2009 when it won the first Sevens World Cup tournament in Dubai that it was a formidable force, the masterstroke was an ARU talent identification program aimed at making their first Olympic appearance a success. This brought to the team many from other sporting pursuits, including hockey, basketball, athletics, and in particular the touch football ranks -- not surprising considering its attacking and passing qualities are also at the heart of the sevens game.

What was then required was for a number of the newcomers to learn proper tackling techniques so they became the complete rugby sevens performer. It took time, but it all began to gel well before the team arrived in Brazil, as shown by their No. 1 world ranking going into the Olympics.

Maguire said an important skill the touch football contingent provided the Australia seven's team with was "the long passing game".

"I thought the difference between the teams was the ability of our girls to see space, throw that long pass to open space, and have players run into the hole," Maguire said.

"Our sport is different to a lot of others in being an evasion game. So our girls are always looking for space. They are always looking to score.

"They develop an attacking mindset. Their high fitness level is another key element, and helps them to handle the workload.

"There will be a lot of people now talking about playing sevens football, but those girls (in the Australian team) wouldn't play the way that they do if they hadn't had their skill development in our game."

Maguire also believes those who had been enticed elsewhere will probably not be lost to touch football.

"It is a sport you can play for life. So I've no doubt that those girls will someday return and again play touch football for Australia, potentially in an over-age category, or definitely at the park level.

"We have a very strong high performance program, but we're really focused on ensuring that more people participate. Touch football usually ends up being a lot of people's second sport. They play rugby league and touch, or netball and touch, or rugby union and touch. It's the way we've grown."

And with it, provide a different pathway to gold.