Last week, I took the opportunity to write about my excitement for the beginning of the HSBC World Sevens Series and specifically the series kicking off on the Gold Coast of Australia and all that comes with a destination such as that becoming a series stop. I will take the time to write on the other new locations such as Port Elizabeth and Tokyo but this week with rumours running wild about who will be featured in the international squads and players make last-ditch attempts to impress their coaches in invitational and international tournaments alike across the globe, I thought it would be interesting to look at what the main contenders have been upto since South Africa beat Australia in a theatrical final at Murrayfield in May.
Last week, I took the opportunity to write about my excitement for the beginning of the HSBC World Sevens Series and specifically the series kicking off on the Gold Coast of Australia and all that comes with a destination such as that becoming a series stop.
I will take the time to write on the other new locations such as Port Elizabeth and Tokyo but this week with rumours running wild about who will be featured in the international squads and players make last-ditch attempts to impress their coaches in invitational and international tournaments alike across the globe, I thought it would be interesting to look at what the main contenders have been upto since South Africa beat Australia in a theatrical final at Murrayfield in May.
Sevens rugby has been the last thing on the mind of the reigning champions general rugby ethos for the past few months, but we know that will not of been the case for 'the professor' New Zealand coach, Gordon Tietjens. Compared to many of the international sides, NZ have somewhat gone under the radar during the off-season. Tietjens was seen working with the 15s All Blacks in the run-up to the RWC and many of the NZ 7s players have been busy playing in the ITM Cup.
What we can expect from the New Zealand side is consistency. 'Tietj' has them playing with such efficiency and exectution year in year out. Whilst their stars such as Tomasi Cama who has been nominated for a prestigious Steinlager award for his form in the ITM (Turbos) and on the World Series last season, will once again be pulling the strings. Also up for Steinlager awards due to their performance on the series last year, are try scoring phenomenon Declan O'Donell and stalwart Tim Mikkelson.
New Zealand tend not to play as much together as the other international sides, or certainly not publically but players have had run-outs for sides such as Auckland in Nairobi last weekend, whilst a number of the Kiwi stars were also in Sri Lanka playing in the Carlton Super Sevens alongside emergining Sri Lankan players in an attempt to boost the game in the country.
Australian Sevens has changed dramatically since Micheal O'Connor took over at the helm and this off-season has been no different. The Australian 7s team is still very much about developing players for the 15s game and this could be seen last season with many of their successful side from 09/10 that was victorious at Twickenham have graduated to Super Rugby. The 10/11 season was about blooding new players and the side became more than competitive by the end of the season in Murrayfield yet it was the case again with O'Connor losing skipper Bernard Foley, Jono Lance and Zack Holmes to the next level.
The Australians have been running out as the Thunderbolts, and will have probably played the most rugby 7s of all the sides, having played in the Central Coast 7s, the Samoa Marist Sevens with further run-outs as the 'Bolts' to come at Noosa International Sevens and the Hyperions Paradise Sevens which will see them face quality opposition such as Hong Kong, Samurai, South Sea Drifters, Daveta, Red Rock, Country King Browns and Papau New Guinea.
The Australian international season opened in Apia at the Oceania Sevens where they were defending their title. O'Connor once again named a young somewhat experimental squad, and their inexperienced showed but as did their individual brilliance. Heavy losses to Samoa in the group stages and Fiji in the semi-finals will have given the coach plenty to consider but he will be boosted by the form of Lindsay Cook who has speed to burn and the considered game of Hamish Angus
South Africa came into their own at the end of last season and were the form team of the series, showing 2 completely different game plans in taking victories in the finals of Twickenham and Murrayfield respectively. Cecil Afrika was named IRB World Sevens Player of the Year which was well deserved but SA are not a one man team.
SA coach Paul Treu named a 23 man squad and there is experience throughout with players such as Kyle Brown, Frankie Horne and Boom Prinsloo. They have also been rejoined by Robert Ebersohn who played so well when last in the squad and he now returns from the Free State Cheetahs. Also returning following a motorcycle accident will be Chase Minnaar who will be a welcome return.
In the past, we would of seen the 'Blittzbokke' competing in the SCC Singapore Sevens but instead Treu sent his Emerging Boks side to Narobi and the Safari Sevens which they have seen success at in the past. The young South Africa side fell short in the semi-finals losing to an already in-form Samoa side.
South Africa have chosen to play 'practice' matches against leading Universities; UCT and Stellenbosch. In the first of these against Cape Town it was flyer Branco Du Preez who impressed alongside Minnaar. Treu spoke of Du Preez in glowing fashion "He's just in a different class,"
South Africa will play one more 'practice' match against Stellenbosch before selecting their side for the first leg of the series.
The soap opera that is Fiji 7s has continued to take place throughout the off-season. The FRU have appointed a new coach in Alifereti Dere who has promised to bring back the 'fijian flair' to their game. I don't want to touch on this too much but I hope he gets the support and the time to do this, many of the coaches have not been given the support of the Union and this has not helped in their attempts for success.
Fiji as a nation probably has the most players who can seamlessly fit into international rugby sevens, I include professional rugby players in the tri-nations and Europe, Steffon Armitage proved how tough it is to just 'fit in' but in Fiji, its 7s first and the high level of rugby that is played at club level is not matched anywhere else in the world especially on a consistent basis. This does mean that the coaches, can spend time watching players in different situations facing different players before selecting a side, much like 15s in the other nations.
The last few weeks have given us any idea of just how many high level players this small pacific island has with Daveta (formerly Davetalavu) winning the SCC Singapore Sevens in style with a win over a Willie Walker led Borneo Eagles side in the final. Whilst this was taking place, Terry Sands and Samurai International were putting out an all Fijian side in Narobi that was good enough to beat Kenya and make the final of the Safari Sevens before falling short to Samoa.
Over the coming weeks Red Rock, the Fijian National Champions will play in both the Noosa and Paradise International 7s, whilst they will be joined by Daveta at both, they will also be joined by the world famous South Sea Drifters at the Paradise 7s. All 3 of these sides will go into these tournaments with an expectation of winning the tournament which has international sides competing. There are not many nations that can boast such strength in depth.
It is now the role of Dere to turn this depth and love for the game of 7 into consistent success on the field, the odd tournament win is not good enough, the Fijians must be competing for the overall World Series title.
The Samoans are the side in-form, they were recently victorious in Apia at the Oceania Sevens and have followed this up with a win at the Safari Sevens. They have very much looked like the side that won the overall World Series title.
Like the New Zealand style, you can somewhat predict how Samoa will play this season, this of course does not mean you can stop it. They base their game round powerful running up front, dominance and speed of ball at the breakdown and what differs them from the other Pacific Island sides, they often have the handling to match. This of course sounds obvious but you need the playing staff to play in such a way with players such as Uali Mae and the upcoming Patrick Faapalle pulling the strings for Levi Asi and David Lemi outside.
“We are just preparing for the start of the IRB seasons but the boys are not yet there since there are some cobwebs we need to get rid of,” said Samoa coach Stephen Betham when asked about the form of his side following 2 big tournament wins in the pre-season.
Ben Ryan has probably never been in as strong a position with regards to the players and time with said players in the lead-up to the series. England's World Series preparations started as early as the summer, as they ventured onto European shores with somewhat of a development squad that mixed experience with novice as England took part in European Grand Prix Series. The outcome in regards to results, the series was somewhat of a mixed bag with England winning 2 tournaments but finishing 2nd overall to Portugal. The 4 tournaments proved to be an excellent tool in looking at new players such as Lewis-Pratt who looks to be earmarked to replace the retired/pushed Ben Gollings in the kicking duties.
Other finds were the form of Sam Edgerley who continues to push the full-time squad members for a position in the final 12. Dan Norton and Nick Royle continue to score freely and this was seen again last week in Elche as England won 4 from 5 against Wales, Scotland, Spain, France and Portugal with the loss coming against the latter.
The big news for me that came from the off-season was the addition of Chris Brightwell to the full-time squad and the imminent return to fitness of Ollie Phillips and Damudamu. These 3 players were absolutely integral to the success of the England side of 2 seasons ago. England were probably an even better side last year for 2/3rds of the season before dropping at the end, rather than this being the personnel though, this could be put down to preparation, training and time together. Mixing the 3 above with the side from last year has the potential to be a side that will win tournaments and compete for the overall series title.
Whilst England are now somewhat blessed with the amount of time spent with players, the European Series and somewhat of an experienced, balanced side they do face the hurdle that it's not 7s season in the Northern Hemisphere and there opportunities for rugby within their budget against competitive opposition are few and far between. They will be pleased to of had a run out in Spain last week but when compared to 5/6 tournaments of the Ozzies and the amount of rugby Fiji and Samoa have played it's not the same. That being said South Africa and New Zealand have chosen a similar approach and Treu and Tietjens know what they are talking about.
Somewhat of a whistle stop tour of the top contenders and what they have been upto, when you compare the lead-up to an international season in 2011 to even that of 2008 there is just no comparision, sides are spending time on the field, the gym, the science lab, in planes, travelling all over for game-time. The commercial side of the sport has grown, and with it the professionalim of the players, and management. I'm sure coaches would love to do more with their players and they are restricted by budgets but that's always the case irrelevant of bank balance, just asked Roberto Mancini!
Next week, I will take a look at the other core nations; Wales, Scotland, Argentina, Kenya, USA, Japan and how they have prepared for what will be the best HSBC World Sevens Series yet.
Keep it 7s................JB