Starmers: Glorious start to Sevens season
Broadcaster Nigel Starmer-Smith looks back on a thrilling opening weekend for the HSBC Sevens World Series on Australia's Gold Coast.
What a terrific start it was to the new HSBC Sevens World Series in Australia and it's really clear already that the standard has gone up a notch with these 15 core teams set to play every round.
From the very start, on the first day of the season at Skilled Park, it was all competitive. You just won't have the 40-, 50-point early pool match blow-outs any more, nothing's easy and the standard is going up all the time. The players are fitter and faster across the board.
Fiji won the title in brilliant style to defend the Gold Coast Sevens that they won in similar fashion last year, and they faced a familiar foe in the final, but you have to say that it could have gone a number of ways, with the likes of Australia, South Africa and Kenya on this occasion just losing out.
I must say that when the squads were declared I really wasn't expecting a Fiji-New Zealand final. I saw real strength in South Africa and on day one they looked in a class of their own, but they fell by the wayside on day two. I watched England train before they travelled out and expected great things of them but they didn't click and suffered injuries too to key players.
I don't think even coach Gordon Tietjens was expecting much of New Zealand, with six new players. Top four was what he was aiming for at the outset but they outdid that.
And Fiji. Glorious Fiji. Seven new players and you just wonder where they all come from, where have they been, and how many more there are like them? The star of the whole tournament, Joji Raqamate, is 27 - that's normally at the back-end of your Sevens career, it's extraordinary. The way he and the little pocket rocket Ratu Raitini ripped through the opposition was a wonder to behold and I just hope we see more of them this season.
Pace to burn
I was also delighted to see such an impressive return to form by Kenya. We always knew that the athleticism and potential was there, the thing they've lacked has been discipline and the ability not to self-destruct, and clearly their new coach Mike Friday has brought that discipline. To reach the Cup semi finals, beating a good Australia side, was absolutely outstanding.
On the lightning fast surface on the Gold Coast we also witnessed some of the fastest running we've ever seen on a Sevens pitch. Collins Injera and Oscar Ouma were both rapid for the Kenyans, but even they were outdone.
American track convert Carlin Isles is probably the quickest guy ever to have played Sevens on the Series. The USA didn't reach the Cup and struggled a bit but Isles has only been playing rugby for 12 weeks and has a personal best over the 100m of 10.13 seconds! That sort of time makes the Olympic final and it's amazing that he is only the 40th-fastest sprinter in the States, but it shows how much potential there is for cross-over athletes to make their mark. Their coach Alex Magleby is looking for athletes, and then he's going to teach them how to play rugby.
Not quite as quick, but with rugby simply oozing out of every pore, is Fiji's Ratu Raitini. He's quick too and has a devastating eye for a gap, as he showed in scoring a hat-trick in the final.
There are other players worthy of special mention too: for one of the new core teams Spain, captain Pablo Feijoo led by example again, ably assisted by the likes of Ignacio Martin in beating England in the Bowl final - a first ever win against England. I thought Tim Mikkelson was outstanding for New Zealand and Kyle Brown led from the front for South Africa, in attack and defence.
Overall it was a marvellous start to the Series and also popular among the teams, I think, to have the one tournament on its own. I was looking forward to going to Argentina, and hopefully we'll go there in the future, but I think this one tournament to kick off the season will have been a really useful fact-finding mission for the coaches.
Now they all have a bit of time to go away, assess how players and systems worked, or didn't work, before coming back again for rounds two and three, which are back-to-back in Dubai and South Africa.
Gold Coast - Knock-out highlights