Sport

Olympics: Opals fired up for host nation Brazil as Lauren Jackson races clock

Australian Opals coach Brendan Joyce has urged his side to embrace the challenge of playing Brazil in front of a hostile home crowd after avoiding the US in the Olympic group stages.

But he admitted having Lauren Jackson on board remains a "long shot", and a decision on whether she will be given more time to prove her fitness will be made at the end of March.

There was mixed news for the world No.2 ranked Opals in Saturday's draw announcement. They won't play world champion, the US, until a potential final should they top their group, which includes Brazil, Japan and three qualifiers yet to be decided.

But the first-up assignment with world No.7 Brazil will be an immediate acid test as the Opals strive for a first Olympic gold medal.

Australia played last year's world championship hosts Turkey in a practice match before the tournament began, when they won bronze.

Joyce has adopted the same tactic by playing Brazil in a test event at Rio in January, which the Opals won 77-66, to get used to the experience.

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"We know Brazil's going to be pretty good, but so are we," he said.

"It will be an emotional game because of the crowd; we have to make sure we stay on an even keel.

"We know it's going to be loud and it's going to be a big battle, but every game is. Japan just smashed China by 30."

Australia lost to the US in the semi-finals of the world championships, before beating Turkey in the bronze medal play-off.

Joyce was happy about being placed in the opposite group, but said it's irrelevant unless the Opals take care of business first.

"It would be ideal for that to happen, it would be reckless to not respect and prepare for every team," Joyce said. "These teams are really good; I think any of four or five other teams can medal."

Jackson is shooting for a fifth Olympics, but she acknowledged last month it would be an "absolute miracle".

Joyce said they would sit down at the end of the month to gauge her progress.

"At the end of the month she'll be re-evaluated. Whether we extend that period, and whether she wants to extent that period, we'll know then," he said.

"I'm hopeful. Even Lauren knows it's a long shot but everybody's chipping in with the rehab to see how it goes. It would be unbelievable to have her, she's one of the greatest.

"On the other side of the coin the last couple of years we've been playing without her, so we've got used to it.

"I'm hoping I'm not the only coach in the last 16 years not to have her at an Olympics."

The good news for Joyce is centre Elizabeth Cambage is back in the fold after she missed the world championships through injury.

Joyce insisted the "blackface" saga involving Cambage and fellow Opal Alice Kunek has been resolved in-house.

"It's OK, we've managed what we can personally and through communication with Liz and her manager," he said.

"We're not going to manage it through the media, we're just doing it the right way.

"Right now she [Cambage] is doing her running program and she's in a bit better condition than we thought she would be coming back from China."

The final Olympic team will be announced in July and fellow big Marianna Tolo, who deputised admirably for Cambage in Turkey, is recovering quicker than expected from a torn anterior cruciate ligament.

"I've worked her out here a few times in Canberra and we could probably bring her in early but we're not," Joyce said. "We're really positive about that one."

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