GREENWICH, CT – The 2016-17 HSBC Sevens Series started on Thursday for the women and kicked off today for the men in Dubai. With it comes our first glimpse of the massive changes by many of the teams to their coaching and player personnel. Last year‘s tournament saw upsets – like the USA getting its’s first win over the All Blacks. What will happen this year?
It would be a safe bet to say that Fiji will likely win pool A. The reining Olympic gold medal champions. Six of the fourteen members of the squad are returning members of the Olympic team and Osea Kolinisau will be captaining the team. The fight for second place could go to any of the other three teams. Canada, under new coach Damian McGrath, has selected eleven players with previous series experience. The team has undergone significant change this off season so it will be relying on experience in Dubai. Argentina is coming off of a fifth place finish from last year and looks to be strong this year. Gaston Revol, Franco Sabato, and Fernando Luna are all veterans who will provide a good base for this team. Wales will have four newcomers along with one of its two Olympians that represented Great Britain in Rio, Sam Cross. I certainly wouldn’t ignore this team. It’s a tough decision but at the end of the day I believe Fiji and Argentina will advance to the quarterfinals.
South Africa has named a strong team for Dubai and is looking to make this the year where they win it all after finishing as runner-ups in the series for the past four years. The squad is loaded with Cecil Afrika, Werner Kok, Sebelo Senatla, and Branco Du Preez among others. The Blitzboks are certainly making a statement with the strong roster they are putting forward for Dubai. The USA will have a number of returning Olympians on their side, however, they will be without Carlin Isles who is out with an injury. Scotland capped off its2015-16 season with its first tournament championship. Despite that achievement, Scotland is coming off of a tenth place finish last year, possibly they can bring back their memories from London last season and look to improve. Uganda won the invitational side for Dubai and Cape town in September after it won the Rugby Africa Sevens where it defeated Kenya, Zimbabwe, and Namibia. Uganda is improving in the world of 7s but they certainly have a challenge in front of them in pool B. I see South Africa and the USA finishing first and second at the end of pool play.
Pool C looks to be competitive and the fight for the top two spots will be tough. New Zealand is coming off of a disappointing performance in Rio, but the world knows that the All Blacks certainly have the athletes to win it all. DJ Forbes is set to break the all-time tournament appearance record in Dubai with 80. Young star Rieko Ioane won’t be with the team after his 15s tour, but players like Tim Mikkelson and captain Scott Curry should be able to make up for that as there is no lack of talent. The Great Britain side in Rio was primarily composed of English players and 7 of them will be suiting up for England in Dubai. Great Britain won silver in the Olympics and with many of those players returning for England, they will certainly be a dangerous team in Dubai. Samoa was all over the place last year with a tournament victory in Paris to a 13th place finish. Samoa can perform when everything clicks but it’s hard to predict. Russia in it’s first year on the Sevens Series last year barely avoided relegation by finishing just above Portugal. There will certainly be pressure on them to improve in Dubai. New Zealand will make a statement and win the pool and England follow just behind them with both looking dangerous to go far in the cup playoffs.
It appears that pool D will be the “pool of death” in Dubai. Australia has named five uncapped 7s players to its side for Dubai in what it calls a “rebuilding phase.” HSBC World Rugby Sevens Rookie of the Year Henry Hutchison will bring experience the team. This young squad still looks to be a threat. Leading up to Dubai, Kenya experienced internal struggles with the 7s team striking over unpaid bonuses from last year, but an agreement was finally reached. However, that left very little time to practice this week and we’ll see if that makes an impact of the Kenyan side. France has chosen a squad heavy with veterans with the notable exception of Virimi Vakatawa, France’s leading scorer last year, who will be out after he competed for the 15s side in November. Despite finishing 11th overall last year, France will still pose a threat with its very experienced squad. Japan returns as one of the fifteen core teams on the circuit after winning the qualifier in Hong Kong last year. They followed that up with a strong 4th place performance in Rio where they upset the All Blacks. I really like this Japanese side and thing that they could be a real threat not only in Dubai but the rest of the season.
The Eagles will be playing with eight Olympic Training Center Residents, six of which were members of the Olympic team in Rio. To balance that out, there will be four players making their Series debut after being selected from the High Performance Camp (Don Pati, Kevon Williams, Anthony Welmers, and Alec Gletzer). As noted, Carlin Isles will be out due to a high ankle sprain. The team hasn’t spent much time together because many of the players (Andrew Durutalo, Martin Hughes, Martin Iosefo, Folau, and Danny Barrett) were on 15s duty. Durutalo will add a lot to the team as he missed last year’s series while in Japan with the Sunwolves of Super Rugby. Fortunately most of the players have played together before, but the team might look a bit rusty at first. The key will be to rely on the veterans who have been together before early on in the tournament to compensate for the short preparation time. The Eagles are capable of beating anyone in the tournament, it just depends on which Eagles team shows up in Dubai…
Final standings will be:
Cup: South Africa
Third: New Zealand
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