The Australian Steelers are learning the hard way that there are no soft matches as their rivals aim to test themselves against the best.
The lesson hit the Steelers between the eyes at the Japan Para Championships in Chiba which concluded on Sunday, when they were defeated 53-52 by the United States to finish fourth at the four-nation tournament.
Aiming to salvage an underwhelming campaign, the Australians conceded a rare flagrant foul for dangerous play and six turnovers in the second half against the Americans in a performance that left head coach Brad Dubberley seething.
“We saw some dumb stuff from some experienced players, early on in particular,” Dubberley said.
“We had a flagrant foul, which was pretty soft but it was warranted. We just shouldn’t be making hits in those positions. We worked to get back in the game but then again, we saw more silly stuff.
“To be honest, I’m very frustrated.
“Obviously we’re taking a lot out of this tournament in terms of new players getting a lot of minutes, but it was such a disappointing way to end when we had a good chance to finish off on a strong note.”
The Steelers @Paris2024 prep is ramping up this week as they compete in the Japan Para #WheelchairRugby Champs.— AUS Paralympic Team (@AUSParalympics) February 2, 2023
The team features some familiar faces making their Steelers debut as Coach Brad Dubberley works on building depth & experience: https://t.co/g4WmZ0666N@ww_rugby pic.twitter.com/91PLydqOU9
But Dubberley was not making excuses, instead lamenting that some of the more established athletes in Chiba did not always meet the expected standard.
“The US applied some pressure and our guys, especially some our experienced players, made some uncharacteristic errors at crucial times. Against the top teams, you can’t make mistakes like that. It creates unnecessary pressure and eventually it comes back to bite you, which is what it did today.”
The Steelers now look to the Asia Oceania Championships in June, where victory will secure a place at next year’s Paris Paralympic Games and avoid a bumpier ride to the sport’s showcase event via another qualifying tournament against rivals from Europe and the Americas.
With no more international appearances before then, the Steelers have important work to do in between commitments with their respective state teams during the Australian domestic season.
“The domestic competitions will obviously be good for the guys to get some match practice against each other, but I think we’ll have to revisit our Steelers’ schedule to try and get more out of it” Dubberley said.
“We need as much time together as possible. Off the back of this, we’ve got players who won’t be playing together until we get to Oceania and it’s a crucial time to strategise and make sure we are best prepared for the qualifiers to get ourselves to Paris.
“We’ve done a lot of learning here in Chiba. I’m grateful for the opportunities that this tournament has given us.”
By: Tim Mannion, Paralympics Australia
Posted: 6 February 2023
Image: Megumi Masuda.