Firstly, I am not going to spend time talking about how 7s is growing and marveling at the numbers that the IRB and HSBC have been churning out over the past few weeks. That is not to say that I don't agree with this and don't see that it's been an incredible last few years that culminated in the series having 547,000 people through the gates across the 9 legs last year or that the series went into over 300 million homes through a huge broadcast network. It's just that I accepted a long time ago that rugby sevens has arrived. It is a mainstream sport, an olympic sport with international elite athletes that is covered by publications and broadcasters. So I no longer feel the need to continue to talk of growth, that of course is the role of the IRB and their sponsors but my job is too write about the sport I love, so I am going to get on with talking about that.
Firstly, I am not going to spend time talking about how 7s is growing and marveling at the numbers that the IRB and HSBC have been churning out over the past few weeks. That is not to say that I don't agree with this and don't see that it's been an incredible last few years that culminated in the series having 547,000 people through the gates across the 9 legs last year or that the series went into over 300 million homes through a huge broadcast network.
It's just that I accepted a long time ago that rugby sevens has arrived. It is a mainstream sport, an olympic sport with international elite athletes that is covered by publications and broadcasters. So I no longer feel the need to continue to talk of growth, that of course is the role of the IRB and their sponsors but my job is too write about the sport I love, so I am going to get on with talking about that.
So here we go another season, 15 'core' teams involved in the series for the first time, promotion and relegation, almost a 10th tournament, more full-time squads and back room staff. It's going to be a hell of a year. UR7s have once again invited me back to talk about my sometimes nonsensical views around the world series and the global game whilst also publishing my 'Power Rankings' after each tournament which always gets people talking! I cannot wait.....
The Promotion/Relegation issue
Firstly, I love what the IRB are trying to do here. There had been worries that it would be a closed shop and the sides that are competing in the world series would only go further away from the rest of the sides in the world that don't have the platform to improve. Now, the thought behind the new system is such that this is going to give 3 new sides per year a chance to play at the highest level of the game and with that improve and grow the pool of quality sides around the globe. The problem with the system is that this is not going to happen. The London tournament will see the top 12 sides after Glasgow play in one tournament and the other 3 sides join 5 'qualified sides' from Hong Kong with the top 3 teams qualifying for the following seasons world series.
Now what do we think will happen here? Will the 3 sides who have played 8 tournaments across the season against the best sides in the world take the top 3 spots or will we see an upset and 3 new sides qualify? My gut feeling is that is going to be the former unless something is done to guarantee quality game-time for the other team who will take part in the promotion tournament. If this is not done and done so on a scale that is comparable to the World Series then we will just see the same sides in the series next year.
I really wanted to see the bottom 3 sides straight relegated and replaced with 3 sides from a promotion tournament. This would have had benefits two fold, the sides that get relegated would have to seriously sort themselves out, sides that perhaps don't have the infrastructure to be competitive at series level but are good enough against the level below would not have the safety blanket, it would hammer home to unions that no-one just gets their spot anymore, 7s would have to be supported by NGBs across the board for sides to be competitive. It would also properly expand the top table with 3 new sides each year.
If you look at the average points won taking into account that the 3 promoted sides did not play in all the tournaments last season, the only side that would of ended up in the bottom 3 would be Portugal who won on average 3 points per tournament they entered. The 2 sides that would of joined them in the bottom 3 would be Kenya (4.4pts) and the USA (4.5pts) with Scotland (5.3pts) just staying up by the skin of their teeth. You can be sure that the NGBS of Kenya, USA and possibly Scotland would take a long hard look at their programmes if they fell out of the World Series.
I only wonder whether it's important to the powers that be that these sides are important to the global nature of the world series and so have been given some form of protection that immediate promotion/relegation would not have done. It feels like like a weak version of something that could of been so great for the fans.
Ben Ryan v Mike Friday
It would be remiss of me not to mention this, as it's going to be beautifully tasty for us in the media and television to talk about something that I don't actually think is there. Ben Ryan and Mike Friday both have a job to do with talented teams in winning rugby matches. We are all going to talk about how there is something more to it but at this level, there is nothing more important than winning rugby matches and for a coach, making sure your side is completely prepared for elite sport. The schedule makes it all the more juicy with Kenya playing England in the groups on Day One of the first tournament. Just playing to the tune for a minute, I'm sure Friday would love to get a win over a side he once called his own even if it was 6 years ago and I'm sure Ryan wants make sure that doesn't happen but they are also big enough (short) and ugly enough (ginger) to not let any of that come out. This is top level international sport not the national leagues. Might be fun though ;)
Geezer and Phyliss with tough jobs in front of them
It's not just the return of geezer that the world series is blessed with this season but also former England star Phil 'phyliss' Greening. Greening has taken the role of Head Coach with Scotland and as mentioned above Scotland and Kenya finished 10th & 12th respectively of the 12 'core' teams last season. The task that these 2 coaches have firstly is to try and make sure that they are not in those positions come the end of the season (bottom 3 of the 'core' sides) as this will see them in the relegation comp in London and an absolute nail biter. Kenya have fallen from grace in the past couple of seasons, we are entering a World Cup season and it was at the last World Cup that Kenya bowed out in the semi-final to Argentina. That seems incredibly unlikely after last seasons exploits. Mike Friday has been bought in to shake things up and he will certainly do that. Geezer is intense, sticks to his guns and a bloody good coach to go with it. He has had success across the world both with England and invitational sides. Kenya have always had great athletes with real phsicality but at times looked lost and without a plan B. This will not be the case with the new regime in place, they will be fitter, faster and play the game with alot more technical sublety. There is a good chance that Kenya will be back eating at the Cup table on Day Two sooner rather than later.
Greening faces a tougher challenge. The direction of the Scotland 7s programme has looked to be going in circles over the past few years. Where does it fit into the SRU strategy, is it a development tool, is it on the performance pathway and how does it fit into inclusion in Team GB for 2016. These are all questions that I am sure phyliss has asked in the first few weeks of him being in the job. If these have been answered, then Greening knows the game inside out. He is very much a protege of Mike Friday having played under him, and coached with him in both 7s and 15s but the athletes he is working with are very different from that of the Kenyans so I do not expect the Scots and Greening to have as much success as quickly as the Africans. Greening has admitted “For us this tournament is an element of fact-finding to see exactly where we are and where we want to improve. Which would seem to mean that they are still trying to find their identity on the field, he will know and not need me to point out that the HSBC World Sevens Series is a very unforgiving space and probably not the place to try and find yourself as a team. Could be a really tough season for the Scots and honestly I expect them to be in the bottom 3.
Predictions that will almost certainly not come true in a sentence
- England will win the World Series because..................they are best prepared, most experienced full-time squad with real game changers in Turner and Norton whilst can afford to leave Ollie Phillips at home (Plus they have Cracknell!!)
- Scotland, Portugal and USA will finish in the bottom 3 with USA and Scotland winning back their spots in the series at London alongside a new boy for next year.....Tonga
- South Africa will top their pool and win the Gold Coast 7s this weekend
- Tietjens will once again unveil at least 2 new stars of the game that we had not heard of
- Five (maybe six) will win a World Series tournament this year (England, New Zealand, Australia, Fiji, South Africa)
- New Zealand will win the Rugby World Cup 7s in Moscow
- Samoa will struggle this season to really make an impact
- We MIGHT know how Team GB will work in the next 12 months :)
As ever more from me to come, I cannot wait, it's going to be a great season with fantastic rugby that is more competitive than ever. I am not going to the Gold Coast but will be at every other tournament this season and am blessed to be able to ramble to you guys about what I see and think. One thing I know, it's going to be one hell of a ride
See you at the Sevens