It's been quite a week in the world of international sevens; England retained their Dubai 7s title, this reporter joined the 'twitterverse' and the World Sevens Series circus arrived in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. Much has been made of Englands victory last weekend in the desert and I give Ben Ryan and his troops their due, they were the best side in the tournament last weekend. In last weeks preview article on the Dubai 7s I gave England a mulligan for their performance on the Gold Coast, you could see what they were trying to do in Australia but things didn't quite click. They faced some of the same issues on day one in Dubai but they stuck to their guns and the 2nd half performance against France at the end of the day gave them confidence going into the quarter-final against New Zealand and the rest as they say is history. Looking forward to this weekend and their are many questions but staying with England briefly, can they go back to back?
It's been quite a week in the world of international sevens; England retained their Dubai 7s title, this reporter joined the 'twitterverse' and the World Sevens Series circus arrived in Port Elizabeth, South Africa.
Much has been made of Englands victory last weekend in the desert and I give Ben Ryan and his troops their due, they were the best side in the tournament last weekend. In last weeks preview article on the Dubai 7s I gave England a mulligan for their performance on the Gold Coast, you could see what they were trying to do in Australia but things didn't quite click. They faced some of the same issues on day one in Dubai but they stuck to their guns and the 2nd half performance against France at the end of the day gave them confidence going into the quarter-final against New Zealand and the rest as they say is history.
Looking forward to this weekend and their are many questions but staying with England briefly, can they go back to back?
No England side has won consecutive tournaments on the World Series, that's no indictment on England, it's incredibly difficult to do. The margins between the top international sides are so small that things that go your way one week, may well go the other the following week and with that your chance of making a real statement. That being said, England are equipped with the tools to contend again this week, Mat Turner was a revelation in quite rightly winning player of the tournament at 7he Sevens. He looked a little unsure at the beginning of the tournament, popping up in his more comfortable position out wide to make a difference but a little nervy at the back of the breakdown. To Ryan and Earnshaws credit, they stuck with him and their confidence in him was quite right as he sniped for scores against both New Zealand and France in taking the title.
It's Damu in the centres that I wanted to look at though. I was chatting in the gym just over a month ago with a former IRB World Series referee and he said, 'England are always in the hunt for a title when Damu is in the squad' this made me go and have a look at that statement and their is some real truth in it. Once Damu was injured last season, England never really looked the same and when they were contending the season before, the ever present was Isoa Damudamu. In his new position, he is learning his trade, he struggled somewhat against Kenya but was a rock as England took it too teams physically on Day 2. With Norton, Watson and Turner still somewhat learning their trade, the calming and physical presence of the Army man is so important if England want to build on their victory.
So who will be up there with England this weekend?
Fiji will almost certainly of learnt a lesson from their defeat to England in the semi-finals and will miss play making Ikanikoda but in players such as Vucago and Kolinisau they have men that can unlock any defense. What I liked this week was the Fiji coach Dere saying that he expected all his players to be playmakers with their man out and this goes along way to show how much Fiji are playing a different brand of rugby this year. They are still carrying the ball brilliantly, getting their arms free and looking for the offload but their is more subtlety to the islanders as they look to work the ball away from contact and penetrate outwide as well as in the middle.
The side I am most looking forward to watching this weekend though is South Africa. I asked the question on whether Branco Du Preez had the skills to take on the responsibility for filling in for Cecil Afrika and he certainly did that but is inexperience told in knockout rugby. South Africa were a revelation up front against New Zealand in the pool stages as Brown, Day, Prinsloo took the game to and away from the Kiwis. New Zealand did not have an answer for the Blitzbokke up front as they stopped the ball getting in Tomasi Cama's hands and achieved the first victory over New Zealand in 3 years.
South Africa welcome back World Player of the Year this weekend as Afrika returns to his home field and could well be difference that pushes the Boks over the line in the cup in Day 2. It will be important that they get a victory over the Aussies in the pools as they nurse Afrika back into the line up but he will be fresh when considering how much rugby will be others legs and somewhat pushed on by a home crowd, I really feel South Africa will be there or thereabouts at the end of the day on Saturday.
I have given New Zealand some grief this week in ranking them number 6 in the latest power rankings but i'm sure it's nothing like the grief they have been given on the training park by coach Tietjens. New Zealand didn't look themselves last week but as I said in my Power Rankings article, I think there maybe some deeper issues this year in that we won't see them come quite as good. Of course with the talent of Raikabula, Cama, Forbes, Mikkelson they have the tools to win World Series tournaments but it struck me last week that the fear factor had gone a little and in real terms, they just don't have the depth they once had especially in the engine room. England were the side that started the blue print of how to take on the Kiwis, throwing them out of their stride at the breakdown and keeping the possession of the ball. Fiji adapted it slightly in the final of Gold Coast playing much more offensively but South Africa again showed how physicality up front can reap it's rewards against New Zealand.
So the pressure is now on DJ Forbes and his forward mate Soloman King to take it back to these sides and let the creativity of Cama let the power game of Raikabula and Frank Halai go.
At the end of play on Saturday I do not expect to see New Zealand lift the trophy, of course I would not be surprised if they do but I just believe they need some time to adapt to pressure they are finding themselves under, that being said Tietjens is not known as a genius for no reason and if anyone can turn it around in 6 days then it's him. I certainly expect him to do so come the Kiwis coming home to the 'cake-tin' in February.
Outside of the aforementioned sides come a bunch of teams that can do damage, though i'm not sure they have the experience, depth and legs to actually win the cup competition. Australia and Wales find themselves in similar situations. Australia have experience in Jenkins and Angus surrounded by young talent, whilst Wales have experience in Pugh and Evans surrounded by young bucks Patchel and Robinson. Both sides have punched well above their inexperienced weight in the first two weekend of the series, but I think we might find that 3 weeks on the bounce is too much for both sides in expecting them to make a run at the Cup.
The responsibility falls on the shoulders not of the experienced players but on that of the experienced coaches in Michael O'Connor and Paul John, if they can get their boys in order to continue to play their free-flowing rugby that we have seen so far, playing without fear in beating New Zealand (Australia) and of course Australia themselves (Wales) then I might well be eating my words.
The shock teams in Dubai (there is always 1 or 2) were of course France and Argentina. These are not such similar case studies to one another as the Aussies and Welsh are though. France look to be growing week in week out and in players such as Bouhraoua and Delmas with Albaladejo pulling the strings, they have the tools to unlock any world series defense. Where they lack is the engine room though, England bossed them twice upfront though in the final, this could well be because they were pretty 'green' in a first final since 2005.
Argentina's finish last weekend for me was an anomaly, the Pumas toom advantage of some strange results especialy the form of Samoa in the pool stages. They reminded me somewhat of 'little boy that could' they were relentless in their work rate, defending and battling at the breakdown and rather than winning games they were just exceptionally difficult to beat themselves. Something I am sure coach Lobbe is very pleased with. Going into this weekend though, they will not have the shock factor and just looking at the tools they have outside of Montero, I can feel quite safe in saying the other sides will of worked them out and considering their pool with England and Samoa I would expect to see them in the bowl.
I received alot of emails regarding the form of the Oceania 7s champs, Samoa. Samoa were very poor last weekend and got what they deserved finishing 13th out of 16. I mentioned in my Power Rankings article that alot of the issues come from an aging Uale Mai and Lolo Lui whilst struggling to replace the forwards who have headed to pastures new in European 15s. Paul Perez looks to be a class act, and their weapons at Stephen Betham's disposal are too good to struggle to the same extent but I can see them in the plate and not making much of an impact in that either.
Outside of the Cup, Scotland will be pleased with a 9th placed finishing whilst USA will be over the moon with victory over Canada earlier in the bowl competition. Alongisde Kenya these 4 sides will be looking to 'do an Argentina' and benefit from one of the top sides not being on their game perhaps due to too much rugby being in their legs and make the Cup competition.
I am eagerly watching out for Portugal again though, they have the potential to shock with defense thats incredibly difficult to break down whilst they retain the ability to make sure that they can score after long periods of possession, all in all a recipe for a good side.
Port Elizabeth is alive with rugby sevens, South Africa have been out in the community signing autographs and spending time with fans and I already get the feeling that the move from George is going to be a successful one for the future. As ever the tournament is being marketted as 'Rugby's biggest party' and I am sure it will be if not quite the same as Dubai last week but when you look a little deeper you will see that we have what is becoming the most exciting HSBC World Sevens Series yet and I know I just can't wait for the action to begin
Keep it 7s