It was among the biggest boilovers of the Tokyo Olympics so far, the defending gold medal Australian women's sevens team defeated 14-12 in the quarterfinals to an emerging Fiji side. For those who'd been tracking Australia's progress leading into the Games, it was known it was always going to be a hard task to defend their gold, but to bow out in the quarterfinal was well below expectations.
The signs had been there for a while. Over the four-year period since John Manenti took over as head coach, his team's results had been on a steady decline; winning just one World Series sevens tournament in 2018, falling to fourth on the table following the 2018-19 season, and losing the Commonwealth Games gold medal final to New Zealand in heartbreaking fashion, while the cracks within the side began to show before the team arrived in Tokyo.
With COVID-19 seeing to the cancellation of the remaining 2019-2020 World Series sevens tournament in March last year and forcing the cancellation of the 2020-21 series, Australia - alongside New Zealand and Fiji - were without any competition for a year before they took on New Zealand in a six-game series in Auckland in May, and a four-team tournament in Townsville against New Zealand, Fiji and an Oceania Barbarians side in June.
The results from both tournaments were less than ideal; defeating the Black Ferns just once in a in Auckland - it was their first win over New Zealand since the 2018 Sydney 7s fixture -- Australia were handed two drubbings by their trans-Tasman rivals in Townsville before they were shocked by Fiji, in an omen of what was to come, in their second clash of the tournament.
It was a harsh reality check just weeks before their return to the Olympic stage. Their defence was tested and found wanting, while the bigger bodies and intensity of their opposition had the Australians on the back foot and frazzled.
With USA in their pool, a side that uses their size and power to out-muscle opponents, the Aussies were always going to be tested, which made Manenti's decision to leave Ellia Green at home even more puzzling.
Green was racing the clock to return to the field following a knee injury and had only the one chance at Townsville to prove herself fit and firing for Tokyo. According to Manenti she hadn't done enough, shocking teammates and fans with his decision not to include her. It was perhaps the crucial call that set Australia on their path to a quarterfinal defeat.
A fierce competitor, who hits hard in defence and has the ability to break any game open, Green was sorely missed in Australia's crucial pool clash and again in the dying minutes of their heartbreaking loss to Fiji.
Instead, Australia would pin their hopes on debutants Tia Hinds and Maddison Levy to retain cool heads under pressure and find a way to break through stifling defence, and while they stood up to the task, experienced heads was what was truly needed in the end.
But the decision to drop Green would also play a role in the team dynamic off the field as well, with sources telling ESPN rifts had begun to develop amongst the team following the bombshell call before they had even arrived in Tokyo.
While a fast start to the tournament with two big wins over pool rivals Japan (48-0) and China (26-10), looked to paper over the cracks, it would be during their final pool clash against the United States and their eventual defeat to Fiji that they began to appear on the field.
Forced to defend for long periods from the opening whistle against the USA, crucial and uncharacteristic errors began to creep into their game; loose passes from Charlotte Caslick, a dropped ball from Emma Tonegato metres away from a wide open try-line and a poor pass from Tia Hindes which led to the match winning try. Then in the dying minutes against Fiji, players appeared to be on separate pages; some wanting to move the ball quickly from penalties, while others wanted to slow the game down, it resulted in players yelling at each other on the field and looking fractured in attack.
Crucially, what cost Australia so much was the lack of a specialist kicker within the side. With Chloe Dalton cruelly struck out from the Olympics through a fractured cheekbone at Townsville, Australia were forced to rely on Sharni Williams and Tia Hindes for the conversions and restarts, with both failing to secure game changing conversions in their losses, and failed to produce a winnable restart in the final minute against Fiji.
While the players struggled to overcome the pressure, Manenti should be the person to take the heat over what went so badly wrong for his team. Interestingly, he - alongside Australia's men's coach Tim Walsh -- had already been offered a three-year contract renewal before the players had even taken to the field in Tokyo, Fox Sports has reported.
Rugby Australia's [RA] decision to offer the extension before such poor outcomes will no doubt raise several eyebrows, while the women's bombing out has cost them more than just pride and a gold. Without a medal, the women's team will lose important funding from the Australian Olympic Committee, further straining RA's poor finances.
The question going forward for Manenti and RA to ponder will be how the program plans to respond. The game has evolved since their Rio gold medal win, it no longer just focuses on speed and agility, instead teams like the USA have made size and muscle the main focus. With Sharni Williams and Shannon Parry likely to step away from the program following the Games, there are big holes that will be left in the squad, but luckily for Australia the depth is there.
Once known as the 'Golden Girls', their golden glow has been shattered and it will be up to RA and Manenti to see it return.