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. 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 are questions on if South Africa can three-peat as they only pulled of the title last season due to a shocking upset suffered by Fiji in the quarterfinals of the last tournament of the tour and SA had to win it all. There is also the ever present New Zealand, who after winning the RWC7s are a threat to move on from third and get back to the top. Will England be able to kick on from their RWC7s final appearance and break into the top 3. Plus will second tier sides like the USA and Argentina finally manage a top 4 finish? Looking at the upcoming season, Here is a brief review of the teams.
Argentina – The Pumas are able to compete but not able to go beyond 5th to 8th place because of all their other programs. They have so many teams (the Pumas aka 15s team, the b-side Yaguarites, the C-side Argentina 15s that play in the Americas Rugby Championship, U20, Super Rugby Jaguares, and then finally come 7s side) in so many competitions that the 7s team is the training ground for guys who will move onto one of their 15s programs. That lack of experience is to build on along with players leaving and younger players being called up as the season goes along hurts continuity and is what will continue to make this a good but not great program.
Australia – Australia remains a top 4 side but that is all they will ever be. They are also stretched with Super Rugby commitments similar to the challenges Argentina feels. Rugby is still popular in Aus and they can recruit league converts, if they wish, but essentially you come up with you playing both codes growing up. The problem like the Argies is young players don’t stay so the team is constantly in flux. Over the last few seasons, Australia has tried to address this by offering larger contracts to try and keep more players with the 7s team longer. It helps keep them competitive but it may not be enough to help them leap into the top 3.
Canada – The well-mannered Canucks are a bottom tier 2 side in 7s. They are usually good for at least one or two legs where they push into the semi-finals or finals. This is because they always have the fighting spirit but the program struggles with depth and lacks a true speedster regularly that can finish for them. If they can get a regular speedster or two, they can could make all of the difference in the future of the program. But for now expect another 7th to 10th place finish.
England – The English have become a bit of an enigma. Despite having the largest player base of any country they can’t seem to shift into the next gear for the program. They are often a lock to make the cup playoffs but with that they only made the top four 4 times and never once finishing first. They don’t suffer from players moving onto to 15s at the same rate as other nations, so it really falls down to consistency and maintaining their edge. If they can get back to previous levels, they could return back to the top 4.
Fiji – Fiji are the most beloved 7s team in the world. They also should have been champions last year if not for lapse in the quarterfinals of last year’s final tournament. From their incredible run under Ben Ryan in 2015/2016 season and now under Gareth Baber, they have matched their attacking brilliance with defensive steel and structure. They were competitive before but now they are top tier and barring another stumble, they are the likely favorites to win it all.
France – Ze French are really stuck in being a bottom of the second tier almost third tier 7s nation. The have the most commercially successful 15s domestic league in sports and that is where most of the players want to play because that is where the money is. So the ones left to play 7s are the specialists, out of contract players and young players. Unfortunately for France that does not seem to be enough talent to assure a constant success and until something changes that is where they will be.
Japan – The Japanese are hot favorites to be relegated again, as they were when they were a core team 2 years ago. The 7s game is still in its very very early years of growth in Japan while 15s has had continued steady success. Once again 15s has a pro league and the selection of players for 7s is an afterthought because though Japan is consistently the best in Asia, they struggle beyond Asia. They may take a few huge scalps but I don’t see them staying up.
Kenya– Next to Fiji, Kenya might be the most popular team in the tournament among neutrals. They share the same story of dysfunctional union leadership, underpaying of players and struggle with funding. However, when they get out there the 12 players that line-up, transcend all of that and play same damn good rugby. Despite all those challenges they finished 2nd twice and made the top 8 frequently. Can they have a miracle season and push into the top 4, it is unlikely but considering how well they play in spite of the challenges, anything is possible.
New Zealand – The mighty Blackness is still dangerous as their recent crowning as RWC7s champions shows but they don’t instill the same level of fear as they use to. That is mainly because in the series, they are now a close third to South Africa and Fiji. Also the gap has closed between tier 1 and tier 2 on the circuit so if you are not at your sharpest for one moment, then you will lose. Now some consideration should be given for their player drain and that they have players leaving for Super Rugby and domestic competition duties too but this is New Zealand and as such they are held to a higher standard.
Samoa – Samoa is another enigma. They have loads of natural footballers though they lack they occasional speedster but they cannot seem to find the level of consistency needed to be better than a bottom tier 2 side. Last season was they didn’t even manage a top 4 finish. That is sign that the talent coming through isn’t as good and everyone else has gotten better. It remains to be seen if the invest in having legendary 7s coach Gordon Tietjens become their coach 3 years ago is paying off.
Scotland – In 15s Scotland has enjoyed a bit of a renaissance, but in 7s they are still trying. After winning the London 7s in the 2016/2017 season, it was thought that they were going to build on it and move up the standing in 2017/2018 but that didn’t happen. They are lacking the depth and talent to continually be more than a third tier side capable of an upset here and there.
South Africa – They maybe the back to back champions but they obviously almost didn’t win it last year and fell short in the RWC7s. They actually only won two out of 10 legs last season which would make them not look that elite but the reason they won the series is their consistency. They never finished out of the top 4 in any leg; they finished 2nd 3 times, 3rd times and 4th 2 times. No other team on the tour came close to that; Not even Fiji who won 5 times but was only top 4 a total 7 times. That
Spain – Spain are improving after being relegated a few years back and winning back a place, they went on to have a better season than most expected. The concern is can they keep it going. Bookmakers have them as the most likely side to be relegated after Japan. I actually see them improving a place or two rather than relegated.
USA – Last season was an injury plagued season for the whole USA Squad. The fact that they managed to finish 6th was a positive as a lot of players that make up the bench and fringe got experience they normally would not have. I think this leaves the USA poised to finish 4th. I will get more into the USA in a preview of their season ahead.
Wales – There was a time when Wales were Rugby World Cup 7s Champions. That golden generation of players are gone and have been for some time. The new generation of players are not as good and everyone else has gotten better. This means that Wales has dropped to the bottom third tier and I don’t think they will be getting back up soon, definitely not this season.
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And as always, stay low and keep pumping those legs.