There were wins for Damien Schumann/Chris McHugh and Taliqua Clancy/Mariafe Artacho del Solar in the Australian Championships held at the iconic Manly beach in Sydney this weekend.
Schumann and McHugh came into the event looking to win their third in succession after victories in Glenelg and Cobram. The Commonwealth Games gold medallists took their second Australian Championships as a team and continued their form to make it a hat-trick of victories on the AVBT this season beating the young and impressive pairing of Thomas Hodges and Paul Burnett in the tie-breaker 2-1 (21-15, 17-21, 15-9) for the second consecutive event.
McHugh, who took a remarkable seventh Australian Championship in Manly, was delighted with the performance of his team, but also aware of the threat posed by other teams. The likes of Hodges and Burnett and Max Guehrer and Zach Schubert are improving rapidly, but McHugh and Schumann are still finding a way to top the podium whilst finding more ways to make their game ‘bulletproof’.
“The level of competition this weekend really increased especially during the finals, as one would expect. Paul and Tom played well all weekend and both continue to improve the more tournaments they play.
“We are still working on the finer points to our game as we head towards the Australian Tour Finals in Coolangatta in a few weeks. There are always things we are looking to improve on, particularly in side out. This year is a big year and we have an opportunity to really see how bulletproof our game can become.”
Schumann, who took his third Aussie Champs title, also touched on the pressure put on them by their younger opponents.
“We were really under the pump the entire match, which was a credit to how the other boys were playing. The match definitely could have gone either way, so we were super pleased to win in three. I think we’ve sharpened up our connection on offence a little bit, but there's always room for improvement!"
In the women’s event, the final saw four Olympians take the court. There was a second victory in consecutive tournament’s for Taliqua Clancy and Mariafe Artacho Del Solar, who took the women’s gold medal match despite dropping their first set of the season to Beccara Palmer and Nikki Laird. The number five team in the FIVB World Rankings took the match 2-1 (17-21, 21-15, 15-9).
It was a fourth Australian Championship title for Mariafe Artacho Del Solar, who feels like the team are improving week on week after their last win in Glenelg. It was just their second event since November 2019 when they won the FIVB 4-star in Chetumal.
“I think it was a step forward from the last event. We still had some cobwebs, but was it was better than our last event. The girls came out hard and we took a bit to get into gear, but we stayed patient and trusted the process and are happy we were able to turn it around!”
As the team prepare for battle to qualify for what would be their first Olympics as a pairing, they have made big strides under Kirk Pitman. Pitman also uses the term cobwebs to explain their return to competition.
“Manly is always such an iconic place for beach volleyball in Australia and it was great to have a battle between four Olympians in the final. It didn’t disappoint with a great game and Mariafe and Taliqua winning in the tie-break. It was nice to blow away some of the competition cobwebs and we are building nicely.”
For Palmer and Laird, who aim to qualify for the Games through the Continental Cup, progress continues under the guidance of Dutch coach Margo Wiltens. Having won the opening two events of the season, Laird missed Glenelg due to an allergic reaction to a bee sting. This meant that the Australian Championship was the first meeting between Australia’s top two teams this season, a test that Palmer relished.
“It was great to be back on court, of course! I think we have been making some great gains in training and this week we had a chance to really put them to the test against Taliqua and Mariafe! Lots to be proud of but still lots of work to be done. It was a challenging weekend, but our foundation as a team is so incredibly strong so we were able to adapt and still perform at a high level!”
Laird, who has now recovered fully from missing Glenelg, also knows the Aussie tour has provided them with a chance to experiment and ‘consolidate’ and that what the team have been working on goes further than just volleyball skills.
“Competing these last three events has given us the space to really consolidate a lot of our learning from training. Much of the stuff we have done with the ball, but more so our mental game and team communication. We have found a level of trust within the team which allows us the space to communicate instantly without fear of judgement or frustration, which results in a much quicker turnaround in our moments of dropped performance."
Laird continues to relish the rivalry between the two teams as all four athletes looks towards being successful internationally.
“To have a top 5 team in the world at our doorstep gives us the opportunity to really test our top level and discover what still needs improvement, so we are excited for the next few weeks to see what adjustments we can make to be even more competitive the next time we compete in Queensland”.
But the picture is bigger for both teams, as they look to support each other in their quest for their goals within the sport.
“I think both teams are lucky to have the other in Australia for sure. It's hard to remind yourself what the World Tour feels like sometimes! I feel like it’s our job to keep getting better obviously for our own performance and qualification but also so we can challenge those two at our best, to ensure that they are ready to win a medal come international comp!"
The Australian teams have decided not to play the first event on the FIVB Beach Volleyball World Tour in 2021. As much as they would like to be there competing, Australia are only allowing a certain number of people back into the country each week as strict quarantine rules apply on return from competition. The next Australian Tour stop will be held in Coolangatta between from March 12-14.
FIVB Beach Volleyball World Tour
Olympic Games Tokyo 2020