It's a leap year, which means it's Olympics time. 2016 sees the first time the Games will foray down to South America and while it's too early to tell if Rio will be an unprecedented disaster or just one more victim to the traditional pre-Olympiad fear-mongering about the suitability of a non-European host, we can start looking at who'll be cramming themselves into those weird toothpaste commercial/third rate private school uniforms and representing Australia on the global stage.
The Opals, which is underrated as a national team nickname: opals are almost exclusively from Australia, they're unique, rare, valuable and desirable. It kinda ticks all the boxes for a national team nickname, which is really hard to do when you decide to go with a rock as your mascot.
Current World Ranking:
2nd, which comes right after 1st.
The Opals are like:
Late period Roger Federer. World class. Consistently brilliant. Plays the game beautifully. Always makes the semis of the big tournaments. Just can't quite go all the way, and it's usually heartbreakingly close. But still, just a joy to watch.
Like the cabinet in the dining room you weren't allowed to play in as a kid, the Opals are packing some serious silverware. In seven Olympic appearances, they've medalled five times, with bronze in 1996 and 2012, and three straight silvers from 2000 – 2008. They're also 15/15 winners of the FIBA Oceania Women's Tournament, which as I explained with the Boomers is nothing any self-respecting national team should or would brag about. Besides, the Opals don't have to, as they can point to their 2006 FIBA World Cup gold medal and their numerous Olympic and World Cup medals if anyone questioned their legitimacy as a basketball power.
The most recent international tournament the Opals played that featured teams other than New Zealand was the 2014 FIBA World Cup, where they went undefeated until the semi-final against, you guessed it, the United States, going down 82-70. They promptly took out the disappointment of that loss in the bronze medal game, thrashing Turkey 74-44. The current Olympic squad features nine members of the 2014 team, so this is a roster that has significant experience at the highest level of international play.
Best Olympics Commercial Tie-In:
It was pretty disappointing to search high and low through various player and team accounts and come up with so little in the way of commercial support of any kind. Without turning this article into a soapbox about the fact that Australian women's sports are criminally underfunded and lack the professional resources and support of their male counterparts, despite consistently outperforming their male counterparts in international competition, there were only a few pieces of evidence of commercial tie ins, including a Facebook page for the 'Australian Jayco Opals' which hasn't been updated since Sept 2014 (and that was BEFORE the World Cup). However the official Basketball Australia website still refers to them as the Jayco Opals so they must still be a sponsor? I know that camper trailers aren't exactly the most obvious fit for a basketball team but it's not like banks are either so kudos to them for their support. BTW, it turns out the Boomers are sponsored by something called helloworld but I had to look really hard to find that out as well. Maybe there's some missed opportunities going on with these teams on the sponsorship side of things?
Random aside, during research for this article I discovered that the Twitter handle @AustralianOpals is held by someone called Fiona Altmann, on behalf of some sort of opal jeweller business called Altmann & Cherny. They only have 676 followers at the time of publication but one of them is Barack Obama so they're doing something right I guess?
In a team of seven Olympic debutants, Laura Hodges will be a key guiding presence as she heads into her fourth Games. Hodges has been present for most of the Opals decade plus run of excellence, including the 2006 World Cup win, the 2006 Commonwealth Games gold medal and the last three Olympic medals. On top of her vast national team experience, she's played in the WNBA, and professionally in the WNBL, Italy, and most recently France, where she added another trophy with her team Tango Bourges Basket winning the 2016 EuroCup Women's Championship in April. She's definitely into the veteran leadership side of her career now but will still play a significant role in this team's on court performance, as well as a massive role as a leader off the court.
Who to Watch:
The obvious candidate is Liz Cambage. She should get this spot alone on the fact that she was the first woman to dunk in Olympic history.
But even though she's only 24 years old, a fact that's easy to forget when she's been playing for Australia since she was 18, Rio represents something of a crossroads for Cambage's career. She began her pro career in emphatic fashion in the WNBL, winning the league MVP and a championship in 2011. The WNBA beckoned, and she was drafted 2nd overall by the Tulsa Shock, even though she made it pretty clear that about how she felt about that prospect by saying before the draft "I don't want to play at Tulsa. I've made that clear. They want to make me a franchise player, but I'm not going to the WNBA for that." But she did go to Tulsa and found success (individually, if not with the team) in her first year, making the All-Star team and going on to make the Opals London 2012 bronze medal winning squad.
However things haven't exactly gone smoothly since London. There was a rather unfortunately handled moment where, after the Olympic break in the WNBA season, Cambage 'missed her flight' back to the States. Her agent released a short statement saying she was "physically exhausted and is in need of some recovery time." At the time the Shock were tied for last, with 11 games left in the season; she did not return to play any of those games. From that point on there was confusion around if she would return at all to the WNBA, and after an uncertain offseason she did return to Tulsa for the 2013 season. But that was the last season she'd play for them, opting out the next year to instead focus on training for the 2014 World Cup. Unfortunately, she ruptured her Achilles tendon in September of that year and missed the tournament. She's one of the few Opals who does not play in the WNBL, instead taking contracts in China since leaving Tulsa for good. BTW, Tulsa left Tulsa for good in 2015, relocating to Dallas.
Cambage has also clashed with Basketball Australia at times, such as this time last year when she decided to skip a training camp where she was supposed to be assessing her recovery from the Achilles injury to instead go to Splendour in the Grass. It wasn't the most professional thing ever done, but it's quite possible Cambage favoured seeing Blur over having to explain to her teammates why blackface is not an acceptable costume choice and yet somehow she was the one who received most of the backlash for that incident because she had the nerve to call out that teammate for it on Twitter. Who knows, I'm 24 and I've blown off work to go to Splendour so I can empathise with those choices.
The point is, despite the turmoil of the last four years, Cambage is still young, physically gifted and has world class, elite level talent. She can play in any league in the world and could be a key foundation for the Opals over the next decade or more if she wants to. But what she wants to do and what the future holds for her professionally are unclear at this point. A strong performance in Rio would be the perfect way to kick start the next stage of her pro career. She skipped Splendour this year so things are off to a good start.
Group Stage Preview:
Like the Men's tournament, the competition is divided into two groups of six with the top four teams from each group advancing. The Opals will go up against hosts Brazil (7th in FIBA rankings) first up, followed by Turkey (equal 10th) the next day, before finishing with properly spaced out games against France (4th), Japan (16th), and Belarus (equal 10th). Brazil will not be easy to beat first up and with what will no doubt be a raucous crowd behind them, while France are certainly not to be underestimated, but the Opals will go into all five games with a firm belief that they can win. If they do finish first in their group, that would put them on track to most likely meet Spain in the semis and the US in the gold medal game, although as always in international tournaments, you can't count too far ahead.
Ignoring what I just said about counting too far ahead, I'm very confident about this team's chances at Rio. I can't see a scenario where they don't finish top two in their Group, and assuming that does happen and that the US team will top Group B, we'll face off against them in the semis or the final. You would hope it is the final because the US team remains an enormous challenge, and while the Opals would be underdogs in that battle, they would consider themselves to be clearly the best of the rest and the team that could beat the reigning champs. Nothing can be guaranteed but this squad's experience and talent should prove formidable, and it's shaping up to be a great tournament in Brazil for the Opals.
Wade is a writer living in Perth. Follow him on Twitter.