Starmers: Women's Sevens back in the big time
TV commentator Nigel Starmer-Smith looks forward to the second IRB Women's Sevens Challenge Cup in Hong Kong and picks his favourites.
Apart from the two different 12-team competitions on show in the men's tournament - one for the current core teams and the other for those aspiring to join them in that bracket next season - there is something else to relish in Hong Kong. Something that lifts proceedings to an altogether different plane, that adds an Olympic dimension.
If you are not familiar as a spectator with women's Sevens I can promise you that you are in for a pleasant surprise with the second instalment of the IRB Women's Sevens Challenge Cup.
The women's game may not have the outright pace of the men’s but the skills, the commitment, the physicality are all there and may well be a revelation to you.
The inaugural IRB-sanctioned women's tournament in Dubai this season was an eye-opener for many and gripped the crowd's attention. Barring New Zealand, whose squad is in the process of being put together, the remaining top 12 teams in the world will be in Hong Kong.
The main women's contenders
As I see it, three teams stand out. Currently, Canada leads the way under the guidance of coach John Tait. With the steady captaincy of Mandy Marchak, they won the Dubai event and were outstanding winners, too, in the recent Las Vegas invitation, as well as here in Hong Kong last year. No-one has beaten Canada in almost two years now, and when you see Marchak and top try-scorers Cheryl Phillips and Ghislaine Landry, you'll understand why.
Australia are the reigning World Champions and they include five players who were in the squad that won the first RWC Sevens in Dubai in 2009, and nine from the Dubai Challenge Cup last December, when they lost narrowly to Canada in the pool round and by just two points to England in the quarter-final.
Debby Hodgkinson, Bo de la Cruz, Tricia Brown and new captain Rebecca Tavo form the backbone of the squad, all key players in the 2009 World triumph. If debutant Shantelle Stowers has those same skills of her brother, a recent star of the New Zealand men’s team, then she too could prove a match-winner!
England, reigning European champions, were denied their strongest line-up in Dubai pre-Christmas owing to the clash with their successful 15s test series against New Zealand. Seven players remain from their runners-up place in that first IRB tournament in Dubai, beaten by Canada 26-7, but the inclusion now of three of their 15-a-side World Cup and Six Nations squad - Rachel Burford, Heather Fisher and Alice Richardson - and experienced captain Michaela Staniford – makes England's challenge significantly stronger.
Close behind my top three come European finalists Netherlands, Spain, USA and Asian champions China, but I have a hunch that a stronger-looking England might just be the team to finally bring to an end Canada's magnificent run of success.
All in all it will be some unique weekend of Rugby Sevens!
Video Highlights - IRB Women's Sevens Challenge Cup, Dubai