Italy arrive in Adelaide determined to climb back to the top
The Italian men’s volleyball team, once the world powerhouse of the sport, has arrived in Adelaide this week determined to begin the climb back to the top of the International rankings.
But the team has arrived without at least three of its best players, including the brilliant Ivan Zaytsev.
It speaks volumes for the importance placed on volleyball in Italy that the team’s current ranking of four is considered a disappointment.
After dominating the sport through the 1990’s, when they won three consecutive World Championships, six European Championships and eight World League titles, it’s been a long time in the wilderness for the boys in blue.
At last year’s World Championships Italy finished 13th, it’s worst result for more than 30 years.
The team won bronze at the 2012 Olympics, after surviving a scare against the Australian Volleyroos.
Coach Mauro Berruto has arrived in Australia with a new-look squad to the team that bombed at last year’s World Championships.
Along with Zaytsev, top players Simone Parodi and Osmany Juantorena, and rising star Giacome Raffaelli, have not made the trip Down Under.
As well as the demanding schedule of World League, Berruto has to also prepare a team for next month’s European Games.
Australia last played Italy at last year’s World League finals in Florence, with the Italians winning three-one.
Laird ready to make up for lost time
The past few months for Australian World Under 23 beach volleyball champion Nikki Laird have been pretty tough to take.
Riding on the crest of the wave of sporting success after 2014, the Manly Beach 22-year-old finally succumbed early this year to ankle problems that had dogged her career.
While she sat on the sidelines, World U23 partner Mariafe Artacho del Solar teamed up with London Olympian Becchara Palmer and won a domestic title in Perth and medals in Asia.
But this week Laird and del Solar are back together for the first time since January, and ready to tackle the first beach volleyball Grand Slam of the year in Moscow.
“I’ve been prepping for a long time now, so I’m physically and mentally ready to go,” Laird said from Moscow.
“It was hard because I always want to be playing. But I knew what I needed to do to get back out there playing with Mariafe, so it was just a matter of patience.
“It was good to be able to watch her train hard and improve heaps.”
Most of the teams Laird and del Solar will come up against this week have already had a handful of minor tournaments to prepare for Moscow.
But Laird doesn’t think she and del Solar will be at a disadvantage.
“I don’t think we’ve lost much ground,” she said.
“We’ve both been doing what we need to over the last few months to get ourselves individually to where we need to be.
“Now we’ve been able to meet at a point and start tracking forwards as a team again. It’s been good for us.”
Joining the World U23 champions in Moscow will be Australia’s number one men and women’s teams.
Louise Bawden and Taliqua Clancy had an outstanding start to the international season, finishing fifth at the Fuzhou Open in China and claiming several big scalps along the way.
It was a different story for Chris McHugh and Isaac Kapa. Their first tournament back together after Kapa’s summer shoulder surgery ended with just one win.
Like Laird and del Solar, Kapa and McHugh will need to win their way through qualifying in Moscow, while Bawden and Clancy go straight into the main draw as the 19th seeds.
The Moscow Grand Slam begins on Tuesday night, Australian time, and runs through until Sunday.
Australia recovers from shaky start to beat Hong Kong
After two days of staggering through ill health and injury, the Australian women’s volleyball team celebrated the return of several of their best players with a four-set win over Hong Kong at the Asian Championships in China on Sunday.
The win keeps Australia in the running to finish ninth, equal to their performance of two years ago, but this time with a much younger and more inexperienced squad.
Following Saturday’s five-set win over Sri Lanka, the Volleyroos were down to just six fit players, with the rest of the team confined to bed through illness.
But the return of experienced pair Lauren Bertolacci and Bec Walter, and young gun Phoebe Bell, gave the team enough fresh legs to see off Hong Kong 25-17, 27-25, 15-25, 25-17.
Coach Mark Barnard says he’s been impressed with the fight his team has shown all week.
“We were a pretty inexperienced team, without the fact the players are sick as well,” he said.
“It’s been great that everyone has got to play a lot of volleyball, but to get any team cohesion, which we really hoped we’d get in Asians, that’s been difficult because we’ve just never had the same team.”
At 4-13 down in the opening set it looked like Hong Kong was going to make light work of the battle-weary Volleyroos.
But an incredible run of serving by Queensland’s Rhiannon Tooker, taking the score to 16-13 in Australia’s favour, gave the Volleyroos the lift they needed.
They next play Mongolia on Tuesday, with ninth place the best Australia can hope for.
Barnard believes that would be a good result.
“I think realistically, eighth to 10th is probably a fair reflection of where the team is at,” he said.
“It would have been great to get top eight, but if we had we probably would have finished eighth.
“Two years ago they finished ninth with a much more experienced team, so that’s probably a positive.
“There are some good young players. I’m impressed with some of the players I only met at camps this year. They have great potential.”
Barnard will give his players the day off on Monday. He probably didn’t have much choice, given most of them are still not 100 per cent, and the ones that are have been carrying the team all week.
“It couldn’t have come at a better time to have the rest day,” Barnard said.
“We’ve still got a couple of players who couldn’t get out of bed today, so we need a day to rest up and regroup.”