To Africa we go!! I'm sure we have barely got our breath from a stunning weekend in Dubai but it's the form of the World Series that we must look forward with only 6 days inbetween Dubai and SA legs and 2 flights, the players, management and even the press are feeling the pressure! Before we start I am going to partly give myself a pat on the back with my predictions for the Quarter-Finalists from Dubai, I had 6 out of 8 with Canada, Fiji, New Zealand, France, Wales, Kenya the two that I got wrong were from the so called 'Group of Death' from last weekend with Portugal and Samoa getting out of their group with England and South Africa. Lets be honest Samoa doing that is not a shock they are a World Class side but the performance of Portugal was a real pleasant surprise. There was a real feeling that the 'winds of change' had hit the world of 7s this past weekend but once again I am going to refute this, was this tournament even more shocking than when Portugal and Russia qualified for the Cup at the very same venue only 24 months ago. I don't think so. It's the world we live in now in this sport, all of the 'core' sides are able to beat one another on any day but across the season the cream will rise to the top as always has done.
To Africa we go!!
I'm sure we have barely got our breath from a stunning weekend in Dubai but it's the form of the World Series that we must look forward with only 6 days between Dubai and SA legs and 2 flights, the players, management and even the press are feeling the pressure!
Before we start I am going to partly give myself a pat on the back with my predictions for the Quarter-Finalists from Dubai, I had 6 out of 8 with Canada, Fiji, New Zealand, France, Wales, Kenya the two that I got wrong were from the so called 'Group of Death' from last weekend with Portugal and Samoa getting out of their group with England and South Africa. Lets be honest Samoa doing that is not a shock they are a World Class side but the performance of Portugal was a real pleasant surprise.
There was a real feeling that the 'winds of change' had hit the world of 7s this past weekend but once again I am going to refute this, was this tournament even more shocking than when Portugal and Russia qualified for the Cup at the very same venue only 24 months ago. I don't think so. It's the world we live in now with this sport, all of the 'core' sides are able to beat one another on any day but across the season the cream will rise to the top as it always has done.
The World Series system for the pool draw is causing some of the issues for the 'bigger' names on the circuit, meaning that the we are seeing some ridiculous groups in a traditional sense. We have two groups this weekend in Port Elizabeth that we have not quite seen before with New Zealand, Fiji, England & Scotland making up one of the groups and Australia, South Africa, France & Samoa making up another. You could argue that all 8 of these sides would be Cup Quarter-Finalists in years past but this weekend we can be certain 4 of them will be plying their trade in the bowl.
What all of this means is that we don't really know where to turn with regards to predicting what might happen this coming weekend. You can be pretty sure that USA, Canada, Portugal and Zimbabwe are all rubbing their hands together at the opportunity of qualifying for the cup as 2 of them will do. At the beginning of the season the first 3 in this group will have been targeting not being in the bottom 3 of the 'core' sides at the end of the season well this is a huge chance for them to get some serious points under their belt especially Canada and Portugal who will be doubling up after success this past weekend whilst the USA will want to make sure their rivals don't get too far ahead of them.
A few things that interested me this weekend other than the continued rise of the supposed smaller nation was the lack of quality from Fiji, South Africa and Australia. (I will come on to England next). Fiji looked a shadow of the side that won on the Gold Coast. I remember watching them in their first game of the weekend against Spain and in winning 14.0 they looked jaded, their lack of competing at the breakdown seemed a strange decision and they were flying out of the line to make the big hit which is always a great sign of when Fiji haven't quite got it right.
Giving 7 debuts in Australia followed by 7 more in Dubai seemed alot and though I was incredulous about their depth it looked a little too far this weekend, which somewhat makes the world feel normal again. I hope if they don't perform this weekend that the FRU and coach Dere make the right decisions in the New Year for Wellington and Vegas and name their strongest squads.
South Africa didn't quite gel this weekend and the loss of Kyle Brown in the opening win over England was huge. To be honest, they shouldn't have won that game anyway. England played all the rugby and SA just jumped on their mistakes (granted, that's what good sides do) and if you take that win away then the weekends performance are even worse. It will be very interesting to see what Treu does this weekend for their home competition where they were great last year and had a real role in what I thought was the best match on the series last year between Kiwis and Boks in the final with the Blacks running out winners in a stunning match.
We cannot ignore that this past weekend was the first time South Africa had been in the bowl since 01 where they lost to the Cook Islands in Wellington, so for the first time in decade the pressure is really on.
I think some questions need to begin to be asked of Micheal O'Connor and the Australia programme. I understand that injuries took a serious toll this weekend from the outset and we knew they would not be competing at the top end of the tournament but losing 40.12 to an equally injury hit England and ultimately finishing at the very bottom of the sides from the weekend is not good enough.
If you ask any Australian rugby fan I am sure they will point out that there is some serious depth in Australia and when you look at the success of Randwick and Sunnybank on the pacific 7s circuit so far this season there is evidence of that. Are you seriously telling me that there are not players involved in the ARU 7s programme that can be competitive at World Series level. I am sure Mike Friday in Kenya and the coaches of Spain and Portugal would absolutely adore the depth of the Ozzies and they are making waves this season without that player resource.
England took some serious flak this weekend and based on results it was rightly deserved which I am sure they will put their hands up to. Losing to Portugal is not acceptable especially after the work had been done against Samoa. The World Series gives you a chance to immediately strike retribution with Day 2 and the Bowl becomes a tournament in it's own right so losing to the ultimate winners Argentina is again frustrating.
Ussually I would gun Ben Ryan and co for this sort of performance given the way they came into this season but I am not one to kick professionals when they are down especially from the comfort (or not) of an aeroplane seat that I am lucky enough to be on due to the quality of all the pros on the series.
England were vastly improved from the side that actually got more series points on the Gold Coast. In the South Africa game they really fronted up against a physical Boks side. The Boks took it to them within a close radius of the breakdown and England made their tackles man and ball and stifled what was actually a little one dimensional for a Paul Treu South Africa side.
In fact if anything, perhaps the English boys were a little to up for the match with some serious hits going in, none more so than the sin bin late/tip tackle from Vickerman which led them being down to 5 men.
With ball in hand England then played some great rugby; Bibby looked a real handful, the young group showed some real maturity and Lightfoot-Brown is soon becoming a real favorite of mine, he's a ball of energy, great footwork and let's the ball go at the right time. Mixed with the speed/power combo of Watson England looked good outwide and were finding Norton in the right places.
The problem of course with young sides is consistency, after beating Samoa in a typical England v Samoa fixture to lose the Portugal game must have really been tough to struggle for Ben Ryan to swallow.
If losing too Portugal was tough, then I am sure losing Tom Mitchell was even worse. Ryan tweeted that 7 of squad of 19 are currently injured which got me thinking about the depth of England over the Australia programme that I have just degraded. Think about, included in that England have lost Cracknell, Turner, Phillips, Lewis-Pratt and now Mitchell. Arguably all of them could be starting for England (not together).
I see Cracknell as their best forward, Turner as the best back and Phillips is a former World Player of the Year. On top of that is the 2 players who have been shaped as the ones to replace Ben Gollings.
If you put that in perspective and think about New Zealand losing Forbes, Cama, Mikkelson and say Stowers and Baker, would they still be in the final of tournaments. Absolutely no chance!
England are in a dark spot at the moment, I spoke to a former squad player this morning and he didn't speak highly of the results but I am going to look past these at least until Wellington in the new year. This is where the coach is going to earn his money. He has a young inexperienced squad but he has had this before and with less time with the lads as he does now.
How the programme and the team reacts to the adversity that they are currently facing could be the making of them as players and coaches and ultimately new stars could be born. This weekend is going to be tough but the England side I saw at times on the Al Ain Road can beat the Fiji side I saw. The Kiwis will probably be a little strong but England shouldn't lose to Scotland.
Find a way into the Cup Quarter-Finals and this will leave a knockout match against Kenya, Wales, Argentina or Spain who though are all playing well (especially the Africans) are all also beatable for this England side and do that and suddenly your season is on a different track.
Of course this is all speculation. I have not mentioned the solidity of the French, the excitable nature of a balanced welsh-side or the consistency of Kenya. I have basically ignored the finalists from Dubai in New Zealand and Samoa and that's because each weekend will throw up different stories. Sometimes they will be ones about small nations and other weekends it will be about the traditional powers but as with any sport this is cyclical and injuries, pools of death and press speculation will always happen. Ultimately how you react to this is what makes a World Champion
See you at the 7s!!