Dubai and Hong Kong may feel like second homes for England but nothing compares to playing at Twickenham for the men in white. "A home tournament is a major advantage," said England coach Ben Ryan as he contemplates heading back to the hallowed turf for round seven of the HSBC Sevens World Series. "The travel that you don't have to do and also the knowledge that you're in front of your own crowd is going to make a big difference to us, and we've set ourselves a target of winning our home tournament all year." Such a result would not only delight the anticipated record crowd, it is almost a mandatory requirement if England want to close the 13-point gap on New Zealand, the Series leaders.
Dubai and Hong Kong may feel like second homes for England but nothing compares to playing at Twickenham for the men in white.
"A home tournament is a major advantage," said England coach Ben Ryan as he contemplates heading back to the hallowed turf for round seven of the HSBC Sevens World Series. "The travel that you don't have to do and also the knowledge that you're in front of your own crowd is going to make a big difference to us, and we've set ourselves a target of winning our home tournament all year."
Such a result would not only delight the anticipated record crowd, it is almost a mandatory requirement if England want to close the 13-point gap on New Zealand, the Series leaders.
After winning in dramatic style at Dubai, England have watched the Kiwis overtake them with their mix of talented newcomers and seasoned veterans.
New Zealand beat England in a thriller at George thanks to 30-year old Tomasi Cama (who kicked a last-minute penalty goal), crushed them at Wellington (and unearthed a new star in 20-year old Declan O'Donnell) and repeated the feat in Hong Kong before winning their first Adelaide title against South Africa.
As a result, Gordon Tietjens' troops head to London as top seed and with the momentum strongly in their favour but second seed England can narrow the gap by at least four points if they were to triumph at home.
"We need to take London out and we'll look at where we are in relation to everyone else after that," said Ryan. "We still want to make sure that we've got a chance to win the Series. It's going to take a big effort, but stranger things happen in Sevens."
Would it be totally unexpected, then, to see England try and manufacture a quarter-final against New Zealand, thereby putting their destiny in their own hands?
Assuming they win their Pool, an England win in the quarters followed by a Cup victory would reduce the gap to just one Series point if New Zealand won the Plate, or perhaps even more if the Kiwis were to lose another game. The first would see England gain 24 points and New Zealand 12, however a second Kiwi loss could see a net gain of 16 or even 18 points for England and see them take the lead into Edinburgh a week later.
To set up a quarter against the men in black, England would have to lose to either Argentina, the USA or France in Pool B, as it is hard to see New Zealand dropping a Pool A match to Wales, Kenya or Spain. The Pumas could potentially topple England on their own, given that all three matches this season have been decided by less than a converted try and the previous match was a tie, but one wonders if it is in the back of the coach's mind to play his second-stringers against the Pumas and target the Kiwis on Day Two.
Either way, the top two are likely to face opposition from defending champions Australia, South Africa (the runners-up in Adelaide) and Fiji (who have a new coach) with Samoa battling to recover from the injury to key players and unlikely to threaten.
Sun and sand are also on the agenda as organisers target the 100,000 crowd barrier for the first time with a Beach Party theme. If the weather obliges it should be a fascinating tussle at Twickers.
New Zealand hasn't won the World Series for three years, or the London tournament for four, so Tietjens will be keen to rectify these but is showing no signs of complacency as he heads north.
"Thirteen points is not many, we can slip up as early as the quarter finals and they are right on your heels again," said the veteran coach. "We go into the last two tournaments one game and one tournament at a time. We may be favorites but we just go back, review the situation and certainly look to get a little bit better and attack these last two tournaments with the same hunger."
Most of the squad that won in Adelaide and Hong Kong are set to return, having returned to club rugby in April and May, but it is not clear whether O'Donnell will be available with a court case on May 11 for the rising star. O'Donnell has been charged with injuring with intent to injure and common assault relating to two different complainants in an incident on January 21 and will be appearing in the Hamilton District Court on 11 May on two charges of assault.
Wales could be the dark horse of the London Sevens with last-start wins over Fiji and Argentina (following a narrow loss to England) securing the Plate in Adelaide and their highest placing in the Series since 2007. A number of the team have continued on the invitation Sevens circuit and will be up for the occasion.
Kenyan coach Benjamin Ayimba is under pressure to keep his job and contemplated standing down after the Africans' loss in the Bowl Final at Adelaide but is promising a turnaround.
"I wanted to quit the team but following consultations with the union's new officials I have opted to stay on," Ayimba told the Nairobi Star. "We have played New Zealand and Wales often this season and we are getting closer to them. Our defence was poor in Hong Kong and Adelaide and we must work on it before we play the final two legs."
Little is known of Spain who haven't played on the world circuit for two years and are currently ranked fourth in Europe, having lost to Portugal and Russia at the finals in Moscow last season.
UR7s predictions: New Zealand, Wales
England won the London title in 2009, when they scored in sudden-death extra time to defeat New Zealand, and also in 2003 and 2004 and will obviously have the vocal home support.
After suffering numerous injuries at Adelaide Ryan has included a number of schoolboys who impressed on the Schools Sevens circuit in their training camp.
"We have around 20 at training including a couple of lads that have shown up well playing in the various schoolboy competitions recently," Ryan told Rugby Times. "It would be more but a couple more I have identified aren't available. We have toyed with the idea of having some open trials and that might be on the agenda in the future but for now we want to make sure we have exhausted the routes of those already playing the game at schoolboy, university, military and club level."
Their side, however, is expected to revolve around the experienced core of James Rodwell, Chris Cracknell and Ben Gollings, all previous London winners.
Gollings needs only two tries to become the highest try-scorer in the event with his 27 Twickenham touchdowns placing him one behind Santiago Gomez-Cora (Argentina) and Fabian Juries (South Africa). Gollings' 214 all-time tries are second only to Gomez-Cora's 230 and he leads the points ladder with 2590, of which a record 333 have been scored at Twickenham.
Argentina made the semis in London last year but have had a lean run since then with a Plate final at George being their best performance this season. However, they lift against England with 19-21 (Adelaide), 14-17 (Las Vegas) and 7-14 (Wellington) being the head-to-head results this season.
The USA, who won the Bowl in Adelaide, have continued to train at the US Olympic Training Centre in Chula Vista and have set their sights on improving on their current ninth place while France need a good performance to justify remaining as a core team given they haven't made the top eight since May 2009.
UR7s predictions: England, Argentina
Reigning London champions Australia and defending World Series champion Samoa resume their intense recent battle in Pool C.
The Islanders have the edge after narrow victories in both the Hong Kong and Adelaide quarter finals but Lolo Lui and Uale Ma'i will both be absent from the Samoan team with Lui suffering injuries to both knees, and out until June, while Ma’i is in rehab in New Zealand for a shoulder and joint problem.
“It’s unfortunate to lose both but we need to move on, there are two more tournaments left,” says coach Stephen Betham. “There’s 18 on our training squad and preparations are going well focusing on the remaining legs. The biggest pressure on the boys is being number one as it has a big impact on their private lives with their families, but we kept telling the boys it has to be expected, it’s part of being famous."
Australia shocked the record crowd last year with their first tournament win in eight years and may be due for another upset.
Former Brisbane Broncos rugby league player Denan Kemp, 23, is training with the Australian squad and is among the 20 in contention. The exciting winger said he was attracted to Sevens because of its fast paced nature and the Olympic opportunities that the game provides.
"I’m excited by the opportunity and accepting the ARU Sevens contract was a pretty easy decision to make," he said. "I’ve watched Sevens for years and I love it, the chance to see the world is pretty appealing too. But above all else, down the track, if you’re playing Sevens you’ve got a shot of going to the Olympics."
Scotland coach Graham Shiel realises his team faces a difficult opening day against two former champions.
"We’re going to have to fight for it but with a strong squad we will be targeting qualification from the group and into the Cup quarter-final and take winning momentum into the final leg at Murrayfield," he said. "It’s undoubtedly a tough group with Samoa and Australia both very strong but particular attention has to be paid to the recent showing of Canada this season who were very impressive in Hong Kong when they won the Bowl."
Canada, who were not invited to Adelaide, beat Argentina, France and Wales on their way to that Bowl and will again be a threat.
UR7s predictions: Australia, Samoa
South Africa and Fiji have one of the fiercest rivalries on the world circuit but both face a tough task to get through to the last eight with opponents Russia and Portugal getting to the quarter-finals at Hong Kong.
The two teams have met five times already this season, with the Bokke leading three wins to two, and drew in London 12 months ago illustrating how close the teams are. The most important win in 2010-11 was the Las Vegas final, with South Africa triumphing 24-14, and they also avenged a Hong Kong loss with a come-from-behind win in the quarters at Adelaide.
“Fiji is always a tough contest but we have done well against them in our last meeting in Adelaide and we will be aiming for another good performance against them in the pool stages," said coach Paul Treu, who also recognises the threat of the Europeans. "The World Series has evolved to such a degree that any team is capable of beating anyone so you cannot estimate any of the sides in your pool."
Former Fiji coach Josateki Savou has taken over the reins from Iliesa Tanivula, who becomes a technical advisor to the 15-a-side team. Savou last coached Fiji in the 2007-08 World Series and will be assisted by former national team players Manasa Bari and Jope Tuikabe, who coach the Police and Army Green teams respectively.
"It’s not an easy calling, especially when you are dealing with strong followers of the code," said Savou. "But, in saying that, I’m ready for the challenge and hope to map out a new pathway in the World Sevens Series for Fiji."
Savou has had injury and availability concerns and scrum half and former captain Emosi Vucago is not expected to feature.
Portugal made the Plate final in London in 2009, losing to Fiji, and the Plate semi-finals in 2008 while Russia will fondly remember defeating Australia 21-5 in 2006.
UR7s predictions: South Africa, Fiji
IRB London Sevens
Pool A: New Zealand, Wales, Kenya, Spain
Pool B: England, Argentina, USA, France
Pool C: Samoa, Australia, Scotland, Canada
Pool D: South Africa, Fiji, Russia, Portugal
HSBC Sevens World Series standings
New Zealand 134
South Africa 92
Portugal, Russia, Scotland 8