The last time the rest of the beach volleyball world saw Australia’s Isaac Kapa and Chris McHugh, they were standing on a podium in Austria proudly clutching bronze medals.
Team Kapa/McHugh had steamrolled their way past some of the biggest names on the world tour to achieve not only their best International results, but also one of the best ever by an Australian men’s team.
And if you truly are only as good as your last outing, than the Australians would be feeling pretty good about themselves this week.
But it’s because that was their last outing that there is an air of mystery about their return to the International stage at the FIVB tour-opening Fuzhou Open in China this week.
They’ll be joined there by Australia’s top-seeded women, Louise Bawden and Taliqua Clancy, and the exciting young men’s pairing of Casey Grice and Cole Durant.
Kapa and McHugh did not play a single event together over the local summer, after Kapa underwent shoulder surgery.
He had to watch on as McHugh teamed up with veteran Bo Soderberg, the pair winning two of the three Australian tour events.
And top women’s team, Louise Bawden and Taliqua Clancy, come to China having suffered a shock loss at the final event on the Australian Grand Prix circuit.
READY TO GO
But as the saying goes, write either team off at your peril. Both teams go into Fuzhou seeded fifth, which would suggest they are not to trifled with.
“I think it’s actually made us a stronger team, if anything, having not been able to play together over the summer,” McHugh said.
“Isaac’s fully fit, ready to go. He’s been in unrestricted training now for seven weeks. We’re hitting this event with a full head of steam.
“It’s always hard seeing your playing partner play, and not being able to play yourself. But he just wants to get back out there.”
Bawden and Clancy are about to set out for their third International season, and are not letting a hiccup on Perth’s Scarborough Beach derail their plans.
“It was definitely disappointing not to finish off the event in Perth, but we were really pleased with the training block we put in this summer,” Bawden said.
“We know it’s going to serve us well once we get into the middle part of the year, with better recovery than most of our competitive group.
“Taliqua and I have been recording PB’s in all sorts of physical tests, which is something we can use as a confidence boost.”
Bawden has already been to two summer Olympics, in 2000 as part of the women’s indoor team, and in 2012 with Becchara Palmer in the beach volleyball competition.
With Rio just over 12 months away, she’s getting excited again, and is particularly excited about the potential of her younger partner.
“It’s really inspiring to be able to see what she’s able to do,” she said.
“They way she can play is not something that you see a lot on women’s sand in volleyball at all.
“Her physical talent and dimensions are obviously a great grounding point, but I think what I get to have an opportunity to be part of is her personal qualities as an athlete and a teammate.
“In terms of what she can do with the ball, for sure that’s exciting for me to see and to work with, but being able to work with someone who is so committed to finding ways to get success as a beach volleyball pair is where I get the most inspiration.
“She’s really, for her age, well ahead of the curve in being single minded and very sure of herself and what she needs to bring, while not shying away from expectations.”
McHugh says he and Kapa are also aware of the expectations on them, especially after last year’s bronze medal.
“We definitely showed in Klagenfurt at our best we can mix it with the world’s best,” McHugh said.
“The top ten teams in China, the current World Champions are there, the winners of the last couple of events last year are there.
“Once you got on the world tour, there’s nothing but quality players and quality teams out there, so it will be a real good test for us, and really good barometer for where we are at this stage of the season.”
Both Kapa/McHugh and Bawden/Clancy go into Fuzhou seeded fifth, while Grice and Durant will need to win their way through qualifying.
The Fuzhou Open runs from April 21 to April 26. Full details, and live scoring, can be found at www.fivb.org
The Australian Beach Volleyball squad is proudly supported by generous sponsors Hancock Prospecting and the Georgina Hope Foundation.