Wellington was incredible, it always is but this year something seemed a little different and though the Kiwis eventually won out and deservedly so the difference this year was that it just didn't seem so nailed on this season. I'm sure after some serious competition on Day 2 Gordon Tietjens will be pleased to get out of their home tournament with the win and the lead in the series at (almost) the half way point. We of course still have more to play than has been played but leading the series at this point was surely an aim for the Kiwi coach.
Wellington was incredible, it always is but this year something seemed a little different and though the Kiwis eventually won out and deservedly so the difference this year was that it just didn't seem so nailed on this season.
I'm sure after some serious competition on Day 2 Gordon Tietjens will be pleased to get out of their home tournament with the win and the lead in the series at (almost) the half way point. We of course still have more to play than has been played but leading the series at this point was surely an aim for the Kiwi coach.
I'm going to take a look at some of the stories to look out for as we go into round 5 of the series in Las Vegas this weekend but I can't not take some time to tip my cap to Canada and Tonga from this past weekend. It's always a turn up for the books when sides upset the form book and make it out of the groups into the cup for Day 2. That does not take into account whether these so called 'upset' sides is that neither of these teams are 'core' sides. It was the same last year when we saw Portugal and Russia make the quarters but considering how Kenya, Scotland and USA are full-time members of the series that we have not seen in the Quarters so far this year it further shows the accomplishment from this weekend.
Canada have been knocking on the door for a few years, they have a group of players that have played together for a while with some of them also gaining RWC experience in New Zealand last year they were ready to make an impact and given the Australians lack of experience I am not surprised that it happened last week in that group.
Tonga who were playing in their first tournament this season showed that they will be a force in Hong Kong in attempting to qualify for next year's World Series through the qualification tournament as they went unbeaten on Day One and their joy could not be hidden in their defeat of Fiji. Some of their success can be put down to sides not knowing what to expect from them and this could be seen after Ben Ryan had some time to prepare for them in Day 2 but don't take anything away from the power game that they played and the breakdown dominance they showed at times.
Canada and Tonga last weekend made my job very easy, and when sides do that not only do I love my job but I also only get to love the game of rugby 7s more.
Five things to look out for this weekend in the city of sin.
1. South Africa's Power Game - Coach Treu will know that Bokke were not far away last weekend, they impressed in topping their group including the victory in a strange game against England. The first-half of their Quarter Final against Fiji was a great example of how to take on the Islanders but the 2nd half also showed how much consistency is required.
South Africa are probably the best side on the series when the ball is kept tight, they often utilise the pick and drive and look to really swallow the defense in before the ball is moved wide to their smaller playmakers in Du Preez and Afrika. Again though, this is done through attacking the middle before the bigger men get on their shoulders. They attack what I call 'A' & 'B' channel much more so than they do 'C' channel, unlike for example England that use all channels evenly.
This weekend, we move to a tighter field. We have spoken about this in the past and for me it's not an issue but it is different from the cake-tin in Wellington. Taking only a couple of metres away makes all the difference at the elite level and the coaches will consider this. A number of the sides will play a tighter game and Fiji and Samoa have the men to benefit from this but South Africa have done it all year and if they can find their home tournament form in defense as well, i'm sure we will see them at the business end of the tournament.
2. Fiji and England need the win the most - The sides sitting in 2nd and 3rd respectively need to make sure that the Kiwis don't get away from them in the overall standings. After starting off poorly by their own standards, New Zealand have now won 2 tournaments in a row and look to be on something of a roll. England have a model that beats the Kiwis, I think they match up almost perfectly against them, where they suffer is not in their game plan or personnel, its just the slightest execution issues. In both of their past 2 losses to New Zealand Damu has been both brilliant and hand in mouth worrying. He has a habit of not looking after the ball in contact and the New Zealanders thrive off turnover ball. England also go through phases of the best defense in the game to missing vital tackles against the bigger kiwi players. If England execute, I think they are both better and beat the New Zealand team 6 out of every 10 times.
Fiji likewise have shown how to beat New Zealand, they were pitch perfect in Australia and i'm sure the weather had an impact on the final in Wellington but now is the time for Fiji to prove they are different from the past few years and that compete on Day 2 consistently. Win finals and stay with the New Zealanders. Tietjens has always produced the most consistent teams but Fiji have the ability and the endless number of players that can turn them over on any day, now is the time to start doing it every day.
3. Travel time could be a factor : I read a tweet on Monday saying the flight had taken 20 minutes from Wellington but 18 hours in real time. I thought that sides look tired in South Africa at the end of the 3 leg tour and when I have been in Vegas in the past I have felt the series is always a little hungover. Of course the players are professional athletes with great backroom staff but also the margins are so small at this level especially with the sides have so little between them. The side that deals with the recuperation aspect of the week and reenergises will the side that holds the trophy aloft on Sunday.
4. I don't like a 3 day tournament...not one bit : Turning the tournament into a 3 day competition appears to be nothing but a commercial decision that I question just how much involvement coaches and players had in the decision process.
This year the USA 7s will feature teams playing 2 group games on the Friday, a group game and quarter final on Saturday with the remaining games being played on Day 3. Of course leaving USA 7s able to sell an extra days worth of tickets. I have listened to coaches and players talk about changing the structure of tournaments in the past and it's difficult. Players prepare for 2 x 3 matches in a day tournaments and with that plan their sleep, food, recovery and rehab and in fact spend alot of time on this when they are back at home. The addition of the extra creates alot more waiting around for players between games, this is a challenge in itself, it takes alot of the body to warm up/warm down and have an extra nights sleep. None of this is a benefit, it might seem like less in more but that's not the case, its bloody tough.
If the series is supposed to begin to look like Formula One; a series that travels the world with the only thing changing being the background of the location it seems to me that the tournaments should be the same at each one. I always said this about a 24 team tournament in Hong Kong and will continue to do so about a 12 team tournament in HK this year, my point remains over a 3 day tournament as well.
5. No upsets this weekend - I said above how much I loved the results of Canada and Tonga last weekend and I am sure that the canucks will be looking for more of the same in the tournament that is nearest to their homeland but I just can't see it this week even with a great group, I think the Pumas will knock them off their perch.
For me the top 6 sides (in no particular order) England, New Zealand, Fiji, SA, Samoa, France will be in the Cup in the desert but...........
With Australia in the same group as New Zealand and Samoa I think they might find themselves in the bowl this week and it leaves a spot for the Argentinians to make up the numbers in Cup.
If someone said I had to make a bet because I will be in Vegas (arriving Thursday) on who from the rest will make the Quarters and at the expense of whom, I am going with
Wales to continue to struggle with changes from the first few rounds and bow out to France and South Africa leaving a spot for Kenya who will defeat Scotland and Brazil to finish runners-up to England in Group D on a field where they always perform (in fact they beat England here only 2 years ago)
Can't wait to get out there
See you at the Sevens