World Series: First trimester Sevens report
After the first three rounds of the HSBC Sevens World Series, we are now a third of the way through the season, and more than a third of the way towards deciding which three core teams will be involved in the promotion / relegation battle at the end of the season in London.
This extra dimension to the Series this season is set to further intensify the action at the upcoming Hertz Sevens in Wellington, and USA Sevens in Las Vegas.
At the Marriott London Sevens, the ninth and final round of the Series, 12 teams will play in a top-tier competition for World Series points, while eight others - the bottom three-ranked core teams after the eighth round in Glasgow and five regional qualifiers from Hong Kong - will compete for three core teams places, and the right to compete at each round of next season's 2013/14 Series.
If the cut-off were to happen today on the current Series standings, England, Spain and Scotland would find themselves in that dog fight. So how will each of the current core sides be feeling as they embark on 2013, a World Cup year for Sevens? We hazard a guess...
Having started the season with a squad that was, in his own words, 'under-done' New Zealand coach Gordon Tietjens was delighted to finish runners-up on the Gold Coast. Losing to Samoa in the Dubai final with a more seasoned squad will have irked him, but the fact that they put things right straight away in PE is testament to their standards and durability. Consistency wins you the World Series - that and a good start - and once again the kiwis have enjoyed both.
The two big surprises so far would have to be France, twice Cup finalists already this season, and Kenya, semi-finalists twice before coming down to earth with a bit of a bump in South Africa. The second-ranked French have based their new-found focus and hunger on a dogged defence and coach Frederic Pomarel has probably hit all of his season's targets already, so where to from here?.. The same might be said for Kenya coach, Mike Friday, who is working with some of the most powerful, yet elegant, athletes in the Sevens game. Both France and Kenya are almost certainly already safe of the relegation dog fight in London and that will have been priority number one for both in this toughest of seasons.
After hitting the high notes to defend their Cup title on the Gold Coast, Fiji have suffered a slight dip in form but currently still lie in third place, 16 behind New Zealand. On the downside, that is a lot already to make up on such a consistent team. On a positive note, coach Alifereti Dere has blooded no fewer than 14 new players already this season and will be looking forward to welcoming back Ratu Raitini in Wellington to lessen the creative and scoring burden that has fallen on the shoulders Joji Raqamate in his injury-enforced absence.
While his standards are sky-high, South Africa coach Paul Treu will also look back on the first three rounds with quiet satisfaction. Third in the Gold Coast, his side was injury-hit and mis-fired in Dubai but bounced back with gusto on home soil, where they might well have beaten eventual champions NZ on the odd bounce of a ball. 19 points is a lot to make up in the six remaining rounds, and captain Kyle Brown may well be out for all of them, but if Branco du Preez can return, Cecil Afrika can put his injury woes behind him and Frankie Horne and Chris Dry can carry on where they left off in PE then anything is possible.
Wales and Argentina are two more sides who will be pleased with the way things have gone so far. Between them they have won all three of the second-tier Plate trophies, Argentina in Australia and Wales back to back in Dubai and South Africa, and Argentina finished fourth overall in PE. Both perhaps look one real pace man short of Cup contention but they're well clear of the teams beneath them in the standings.
Samoa delighted their fans at home and abroad in winning the Dubai title for the first time, but their form and fortunes either side of that success have been unsettled. Make no mistake, new coach Faamoni Lalomilo is building the nucleus of a new side, shorn of the likes of Ofisa Treviranus, Alafoti Faosiliva, Simaeka Mikaele, Uale Mai and Lolo Lui, and he is making a very good fist of it. Two Cup quarter finals out of three and one Cup title isn't bad at all, but they did struggle in South Africa without their go-to guy, Paul Perez.
Each of the three new core teams - Canada, Portugal and Spain - have performed admirably well so far, as they must if they are to avoid the relegation dog fight in London at the end of the season, or prosper in it. On balance, Portugal will probably be the happier of the three, having bounced back superbly from losing all five of their games in Australia to reach the last eight of the Cup in both Dubai and South Africa. Canada also sit above both England and Scotland and a point behind Australia, and will probably count themselves a bit unfortunate too. Outstanding in Dubai and the tournament's top try-scorers, they had almost as many players injured and in trainers as they did booted up and ready to play in South Africa, and the results showed it.
Spain got their season off to a cracking start, beating England to win the Bowl in the Gold Coast, but since then their results have dipped slightly. They're still playing great Sevens, and Pedro Martin is the top try-scorer this season so far, but they're no longer taking sides by surprise so Ignacio Inchausti will be working his side even harder in the build-up to Wellington.
The USA may not have started the season too well, but they may just have turned a corner in sneaking through to a Cup quarter final in South Africa. Sprinter Carlin Isles is grabbing the headlines with his frightening pace, but it's proven players like Zack Test, Colin Hawley, Shalom Suniula, Luke Hume and Mat Hawkins who can really start to drag Alex Magleby's side out of trouble.
Of the major rugby unions nearer the bottom of the table than the top, Australia coach Michael O'Connor may be the one closest to being satisfied, having seen a younger-than-ever side respond magnificently in a hostile atmosphere in South Africa and cap a fighting display with an assured win against the Cup champions of the week before, Samoa. O'Connor has at least six top class players due to come back from injury for the short hop over the Tasman to Wellington and his young guns held the fort admirably well, and bolstered his options.
Big improvement needed...
England have also battled with injuries to key players all season, but their coach Ben Ryan will be demanding much more of his squad in general in the new year. Third overall last season, England currently lie thirteenth and if the relegation play-off were to happen tomorrow, England would be in it. Marcus Watson's emergence as a player of genuine match-winning ability was a major plus across the last two rounds, but they're crying out for Mat Turner to return as quickly as possible. Chris Cracknell will miss the season, but is arguably an even bigger loss for the weight and physical edge he and he alone brings to their side.
If England can look forward to welcoming back the likes of Turner and Tom Mitchell, Scotland know that their player resources are probably as good as they are likely to get, apart from John Houston, who had to sit out much of South Africa with an injury. Michael Fedo has been a giant plus, captain Colin Gregor and Andy Turnbull continue to ask questions of the opposition and coach Phil Greening will have taken solace from that fine win against Fiji, but the Scots will need to show far greater consistency if they are to improve on their 15th place and climb above the likes of Spain, USA and Canada.
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