Erin Phillips says redemption day approaching for Opals

Ready for anything: Erin Phillips and the Australian Opals are looking forward to the world champiopnships. Photo: Rohan Thompson
Ready for anything: Erin Phillips and the Australian Opals are looking forward to the world champiopnships. Photo: Rohan Thompson

The memories of 2006 will never fade, but if there was one thing missing from the Opals’ world championship win it was that they claimed the title without having to beat the US.

That job was done for them in the semi-finals by Russia, who the Australians went on to defeat 91-74 in the final in Brazil, to claim their first and only gold medal at the tournament.

Eight years on and the national team has travelled a bumpy path, falling in 2008 to a third consecutive Olympic gold medal playoff loss to the US before a loss to host nation the Czech Republic at the 2010 world championships condemned them to a fifth-placed finish in their title defence. In 2012, the team took bronze in London after losing in the semi-final to, yet again, the US.

As preparations intensify– coach Brendan Joyce last week took a youthful Australian team to the US for a series of training matches – for this year's world championships in Turkey, there is a sense the Opals are destined to meet with their nemesis again.

''We didn’t play the US in '06 because Russia knocked them off, which was pretty amazing, but it’s pretty safe to say that if you want to win a gold medal you have to beat the Americans,'' point guard Erin Phillips said from Phoenix, Arizona, where she will play for the Mercury this Women's National Basketball Association season.

''Looking at our draw, even if we win all the way through our pool, our semi-final could cross over the Americans.

''You’d rather play them in the gold medal game than the semi, but you have to get past them at some stage and whether it's the semi-final or final, just to beat them would be great.''

Phillips, who was part of the 2006 and 2010 world championship teams, said the squad had preparing itself to achieve redemption after the 2010 tournament.

''2006 to 2010 doesn’t seem like a long time," she said. "But, in the big scheme of things, it was a long time. It was a different team and it was just one of those disappointing tournaments.

''When it came to the punch, we just weren’t good enough. When you play in the world championship, you lose one game and you find yourself in a tough position.''

The Opals’ third-placing in London without one of their stars, Penny Taylor, was proof the team’s fighting spirit remained high, she said.

Taylor and the great Lauren Jackson will hopefully be fit after recent injury problems, and add to 203-centimetre centre Liz Cambage, who made a name for herself when she became the first woman to dunk a basket in a match at the Olympics in 2012.

''I don’t think we were in the best physical shape in London,'' said Phillips, who was controversially left out of the squad.

''But I think we got a medal because we’re Aussies; we fight, we don’t give up. It doesn’t matter who we’re playing, we fight. I honestly think a lot of teams have trouble playing us because we play aggressively and our expectation is always to be in the gold medal match, whether people think it’s realistic or not.

''Having Lauren and Penny, you put those two in any team and you feel pretty confident of winning any game. We’ve got some players coming to the latter stages of their careers as well as some younger ones, like Liz who’s starting in the centre. It’s a transition time for the Opals, but it’s a very exciting time, I think, and we always feel we can beat anyone.''

The dream is to topple the Americans, of course, and there won’t be any Russia to take care of them this time after they failed to qualify. Other contenders, Phillips said, include host nation Turkey, Spain and Czech Republic.

A dozen players left with coach Joyce for the US on Wednesday. The training matches could prove a useful selection-style campaign for the team as no WNBA-based players, such as Phillips, are eligible to play.

"These younger players can use this opportunity to push to be part of the team that goes to the world championships in September," Joyce said.

Others, including Cambage and Leilani Mitchell, have decided to sit out this WNBA season and concentrate on their Opals commitments. Beyond the US tour, training camps and tours have been scheduled for July, August and September.

This story Erin Phillips says redemption day approaching for Opals first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.