New York, NY – It is once again time for the kick-off of the World Rugby HSBC Sevens World Series. This season begins with the Dubai 7s. As we did last year, we will preview each of the teams before the season starts along with a preview of each stop on the tour. The teams are sorted alphabetically.
Going into this season, there has been a lot of talk about how awesome last year was and what this year holds. Looking at the upcoming season, two main themes have become clear to us and they are:
1) Sophomore Slump?: Last season, nearly half (7 out of 15) of the teams started the season under new management. This year the number is down to just 1. However, 5 of last year’s 7 newbies are back. So what will some of these guys that had great success likely do for an Encore? And what will those that struggled do with a full season under their belts.
2) Rio Olympics: Rio is everybody’s mind. There are 15s nationals joining the 7s team for a chance at making the trip to Rio. Also with a good half of the teams not qualified and only one spot left courtesy of the Global Repechage, it will be interesting to see who uses the series as a springboard to the Olympics. End of the season form will also be critical because Rio occurs during what is traditionally the off-season.
Argentina – In his first year as coach, 7s legend, Santiago Gomez-Cora‘s Argentina finished 8th. The team has used tournaments like the Halloween 7s (where they won) and the Pan-Am games (finished 2nd to hosts Canada) to prepare for the upcoming season. The nation has an eye on Rio and with Super Rugby coming, they may lose players to 15s but they will at least have 7s specialists which can only bode well for the future. They stand a good chance of improving on their 8th place finish.
Australia – The 7s program in Australia has talent but it is struggling right now. It has an interim coach, Scott Bowden, running the program after Welshman Geriant John left the program. They have gained some steam by recently winning the Central Coast Sevens and the Oceania Regional Olympic Qualifier. However those tournaments do not compare to the 7s series. How they cope with this situation and use it to motivate them will determine a lot. The Aussies finished just out of automatic Olympic qualification last season in 5th place. With the improvement of other sides and their off-season upheaval, no one is sure if they will be able to hold onto the same place, let alone improve.
Canada – Head coach Liam Middleton must be excited for this new season. Unlike last season, his first season, he is able to get there early and really whip his team into shape to start the season. He will also have the dynamic duo of Phil Mack and Nathan Hirayama back at scrum-half and fly-half, respectively. The duo only played in 3 combined tournaments last season. The 7s program for Canada is still the union’s darling, much to the dismay of 15s fans. However with a gold in the Pan-Am games and a squad that will the most experienced pool of players in the country’s 7s history, they will look to move up from ninth place, where they finished last season.
England – Simon Amor’s side finished fourth for a second straight season. It is tough to see England 7s advancing beyond that. The logjam at the top presented by Fiji, New Zealand and South Africa make it a difficult task. In order to achieve this task, England have to start by winning more stops on the tour. Not sure they can do that consistently so another fourth place finish is likely.
France – The French are in tough spot. They are the best side on continental Europe but that is akin to being the tallest elf. The Federation de France Rugby (FFR) has poured more money into the program to try and improve it but it just seems stalled. They seem unable to close to the gap on the teams above them and move up from 11th. Hopefully this season they can reach a record finish like 8th.
Fiji – It took head coach Ben Ryan two years to bring Fiji the title. It is not the first time Fiji won the title, they won it back in 2005. However, this time under Ryan it doesn’t appear to be a one time win and back to being also-rans. Fiji is obsessed with 7s and has a conveyor belt of new talent each year. Combine that with Ryan’s coaching ability and knowledge and this could see Fiji go on an unprecedented run of series titles for the nation, we are talking dynasty people!! Not to mention a possible gold medal in the Olympics. They are the favorites to win it all again.
Kenya – It must be tough to be a fan of Kenya 7s. The side plays such beautiful rugby and can play with any team on the series on their day. The problem is the politics of the Kenya Rugby Union. It chased away friends of RWU, coach Mike Friday and then Paul Treu. So to be frank, we wouldn’t be surprised to see Kenya finish a disappointing 13th again. The player’s talents can only carry a team so far without proper organization and structure from a coach and administration.
New Zealand – Sir Gordon Tietjens is still captain of the ship known as “The Unstoppable Blackness”. However the unstoppable force meet the immovable object known as Fiji 7s last season the force lost. The All Black 7s side was thought to be a well oiled machine. However after finishing third last season, behind Fiji and South Africa, it now appears to be a side in transition. Stalwarts like RWU friend DJ Forbes, has stepped down as captain and Tomasi Coma Jr has retired due to injury. Old war dogs like Tim Mikkelson, Gilles Kaka are getting just that, old! The push for Rio has brought about the additions of new blood like All Black Liam Messam, All Black in the making Ardie Savea and the all-conquering Sonny Bill Williams. Will it be enough for the Blackness to return to winning ways? We actually can’t believe we’re saying this, but we don’t think so.
Portugal – It must be tough for RWU friend, Pedro Leal. The 7s team starts the season off decent and is in the middle of the pack but then in the middle of the season, there is a big drop-off. This drop-off is because there’s a clash between 15s and 7s regarding player exposure and signing pro contracts. The national 15s program takes precedence and leaves the 7s side often under-strength when there’s a European Nations Cup match the same weekend. So later on in the season there is just not enough talent to remain competitive. Unless a massive injection of funds can be secured, they will keep having to tough out. To their credit the team manages to keep hanging in there and avoid relegation from core status. They will probably win that fight again this year but no one is sure how long this can last.
Russia – Russia has finally broken through. They have a pro league but have struggled on the international stage. Their 15s program has been improving in fits and starts and though not quite there yet, the 7s program has achieved the big goal of promotion to core status. Russia became a core team after winning the promotional playoffs at the Hong Kong 7s. Their promotion comes at the expense of Japan’s demotion. However, as I always say, it is one thing to earn a seat at the table and another thing to remain there. As Japan quickly found out by being relegated in their first year as a core team. Russia might have a slight chance because unlike their Eastern European cousins they naturally play an open game in 15s. How this will transfer on the big boys circuit is anyone’s guess.
Samoa – I don’t know what to say about Samoa that I didn’t say last year. They remain a modern day enigma. The have won the 7s world series before and can compete with the big four of (Fiji, New Zealand, South Africa and England) in occasional tournaments. However, the problem of consistency and stamina still remains. They fail to repeatedly qualify for the cup round at tournaments and they tend to really go to pieces late in tournaments and toward the tail end of the season. Despite their talent, we are not sure we see any sign of that changing.
Scotland – Under first year coach Calum McRae, Scotland had its best finish on the tour ever, finishing 7th. Led by the play of Colin Gregor, Russell Weir, and Andy Turnbull , which we predicted, the team is now competitive. They won’t take the next step and move into the top four but for the future of the program, they must remain at this level so that they can get a new generation of talent to take it to the next level.
South Africa – South Africa finally finished ahead of New Zealand last season. Unfortunately, SA still finished in 2nd place. It was a tough pill to swallow because for the first half of the season they were on top but Fiji continued to gather steam and with a couple key head to head losses, South Africa fell into second place, just ahead of the All Blacks. This season they have the newly crowned player of the 2014-15 series Werner Kok, back along with Kwagga Smith and Kyle Brown. Joining the team will be occasional Springboks Derek Hougaard and Juan de Jongh. Powell has a lot more fire power this season than previous seasons so only time will tell if that extra firepower will lead to a title.
United States – It is amazing what a year under Mike Friday and his top assistant Chris Brown has done for the USA. It is has left USA rugby fans more optimistic than they have been in ages. Our own Jake Frechette has a season preview for the Eagles 7s, please check it out.
Wales – The biggest success of year one under Gareth Williams, was not getting relegated. The challenge remains massive but this is the second year of the rebuild so it will likely see a marked improvement. The first year is tough for any coach as you are just getting to know the program you are working with. Williams challenge was made more difficult by the decline and retirement of experienced players so he was as new to the team as were over half of his squad. His challenge will be to try and build on last season and move from the rear of the pack to the middle.
Non-Core Teams – Spain, Tonga, Zimbabwe, Uruguay and American Samoa are just some of the nations that are non-core teams. These nations will be the 16th team at each stop. They will be joined by Japan after they were relegated from core status. The goal for them is to stay competitive and any tournament they avoid finishing dead last is a positive. Winning this year’s core status qualifier is the ultimate goal for all these nations. We won’t find that out until later in the season, so pay close attention to how they perform, you maybe witnessing a team on the rise right before your eyes.
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And remember to stay low and keep pumping those legs!