2016-2017 Dubai 7s Preview
2016-2017 Dubai 7s Preview
After an eventful summer hiatus, the HSBC Sevens World Series returns for the 2016–2017 season. As it did last year, the series kicks off in Dubai. This year’s competition looks like it will be even more competitive than last, in which six different nations claimed cup titles, including first-ever victories for Kenya and Scotland.
The pool draw for Dubai is as follows:
Heading pool A is the two-time defending series champion and inaugural rugby sevens Olympic gold medalist, Fiji. The Fijians enter the season with high expectations, buoyed by a victory over Samoa for the Oceania Sevens title on November 12. Despite returning six of the side’s gold-medal team, Fiji starts the season with a change at the top. Former England coach, Ben Ryan, who has coached Fiji the last three seasons has parted ways with the team after three years of unprecedented success. Gareth Baber, former coach of the Cardiff Blues and Hong Kong, has replaced Ben Ryan. Despite the change, Fiji will be the heavy favorite to win Pool A and a favorite to defend its 2015 Dubai title.
Joining Fiji in Pool A are Argentina, Wales, and Canada. After five seasons of middling success, Argentina finished last season in the top 5 for the first time since 2009. The Argentines carried that success to sixth place in the Olympics. Argentina will be favored to join Fiji in the cup bracket. Argentina will, however, be tested by a strong Welsh contingent looking to return to relevance on the series. The former World Cup Sevens champion nation has fallen to obscurity with only seven cup-round appearances in the last twenty-eight tournaments. Wales has not so much as won a plate semifinal since March 30, 2014. Nevertheless, a roster boosted by four new caps will look to start the season on the right foot.
Team Canada is looking to right the ship after a tough two-year stretch. At the close of the 2013–14 season, Canada seemed poised for a bright future, reaching a first ever cup final in Scotland. In the twenty tournaments since, Canada has reached the cup round only four times, with zero appearances last year. The defending Pan Am gold medalists suffered further embarrassment when they were defeated by Russia in the quarterfinal of the final Olympic qualifier. Despite a proud rugby spirit, the Canadians will likely be left looking up at the rest of Pool A at the end of Day 1.
Pool C is full of teams with unclear futures after a year of mixed results. Russia, last year’s addition to core status, did not finish above the bowl semifinal last season. Still, Russia registered a commendable third-place finish in the Final Olympic Qualification Tournament over the summer. Although Russia may produce a better season, Pool C looks to be too difficult a pool for the Russians to break into the cup round.
At the top of Pool C is the New Zealand All Blacks Sevens. While coach Ben Ryan left Fiji on good terms following a great showing at the Olympics, sevens legend Sir Gordon Tietjens parted ways with New Zealand after two subpar seasons and a disastrous Olmpics, in which the All Blacks were left needing a couple breaks to even reach the knockout portion of the competition and failed to reach the medal rounds.
On the other end of the spectrum is England. England similarly had a disastrous last season, with an abysmal last-place finish at the USA Sevens. Nevertheless, the year started well with a finals appearance in Dubai and this England team will feature seven from the team Great Britain that claimed silver at the Olympics. England will be a strong contender to top pool C.
If there is a surprise team that may make a deep run at Dubai, look to Samoa. One of the proudest rugby nations, Samoa has been disappointing the past several seasons. The 2009–10 series champion, Samoa ran a stretch from the 2012 Dubai Sevens until the 2016 Paris Sevens without winning a cup title. At the Oceania Sevens, Samoa ran through Day 1 undefeated, including a 24–5 victory over Australia before finally falling (28–19) to Fiji in the final on Day 2. Moreover, although he does not become the official coach until January, Sir Gordon Tietjens he has already accompanied the team to the Oceania Sevens to plug in and help coach Stephen Betham. Samoa is poised for a big showing this year.
Pool D is probably the deepest pool from top to bottom. Since an eighth-place finish in 2011–12, Australia has transformed into a perennial top five nation. If there is a knock on Australia, it is the rarity of finishing off solid performances. The Aussies have not won a cup title since Tokyo in 2012, despite finishing runner-up seven times since. In the final tournament last year, Australia fell to the bowl competition, losing the bowl to Wales, and finished seventh at the Olympics. Making matters worse was a fairly poor performance at the Oceania Sevens a couple weeks ago. Still, Australia is the favorite to win Pool D.
Each of the other three teams may be able to lay claim to the top seed in Pool D. Kenya, which finally won a cup title in Singapore last year, struggled in Rio, falling to eleventh of twelve. Still Kenya largely put up a strong performance last season, finishing seventh overall and reaching the cup round in all but three tournaments–though one of those was a last-place finish in Vancouver. Kenya looked strong in the Safland Sevens a couple weeks back, cruising to a finals appearance against South Africa, losing 31–10 to the Blitzboks.
Japan, which had to win its way back into the series, was the surprise of the Olympic games. Japan shocked the world beating New Zealand (14–12) on Day 1. After a close loss to team GB (21–19), Japan throttled Kenya (31–7). Even more surprising, Japan continued that success by besting France (12–7) to reach the medal rounds. Unfortunately, the Japanese run ended there. The next two matches were crushing defeats (20–5 to Fiji and 54–14 to South Africa).
France, which twice finished third last season, has looked almost invincible at times and utterly pedestrian at others. In the Olympics, France comfortably beat Australia and Spain, but dismantled by South Africa in the qualifying round. France lost to Japan in the knockout round and ultimately finished seventh with a tight win (12–10) over Australia, following a 24–19 loss to New Zealand. For France, it will simply depend on which team shows up.
Pool B is home to team USA and looks to be either extremely difficult or friendly, depending on how Scotland performs. Included in Pool B is non-core invitee Uganda, a side that has not competed in a series match since 2007. Since switching to the modern 15-core-team format, the only non-core team to ever win a match was Japan, which did so on numerous occasions last year. It is entirely likely that a three-way tie for the top two seeds could be decided by how badly teams dismantle Uganda. The bronze medalist Blitzboks will be the solid favorites to win this pool with team USA hoping to push South Africa.
For team USA, wins over South Africa are possible but few. Over the last two seasons, the Eagles have won two, lost seven, and drawn once. There are few teams on the series that present a more difficult match for team USA than South Africa and will likely continue to be a problem for the Americans.
Another problem for team USA may well be Scotland. A year and a half removed from talks of cutting funding for the program, Scotland enters this season as the defending cup champion from the last tournament. It was a first-ever cup title and a fitting cap for a team that typically played well on Day 2, winning three bowls, but failing to break into the cup round–doing so only twice. In reaching that cup title, Scotland beat the Eagles (24–17) in the semifinal and South Africa (27–26) in one of the most exciting finals ever played.
Team USA brings back some familiar faces that have been core to recent success and adds a few new ones. The most notable familiar faces are: captain Madison Hughes, who led the series in points scored last year (331); Perry Baker, who finished second in tries scored (48), fifth in points scored (240), and was named to the series dream team; Danny Barrett, who has been a physical presence for team USA over the last two seasons; Andrew Durutalo, after a year in Super Rugby; Martin Iosefo, who was named to the dream team in Vancouver; Folau Niua, one of, if not the best restart man in the series last year, and one of only three players to feature in each series tournament under coach Friday (Hughes and Baker the others); Maka Unufe, who competed in seven tournaments, posting ten tries last season; and Matai Leuta who returns after only competing in the first four stops last season.
Most notably, Carlin Isles has not been included in the lineup. Isles is recovering from an injury, but remains under contract with the team. In his place, likely serving as a primary backup to Baker will be Kevon Williams. Williams brings a great deal of speed but lacks experience at this level. This will be Williams’s first cap. Joining Williams as debutants are Alec Gletzer, who recently received his first fifteens cap, Anthony Welmers, and Don Pati. Fans of collegiate rugby will remember Pati from the Utah side that claimed the 2010 CRC title. Joining them is also Stephen Tomasin. This will be Tomasin’s first run out with the squad since the 2014 USA Sevens.
The squad is fairly well balanced with youth and experience. The addition of Andrew Durutalo may help the team regain the physicality at the breakdown that was lacking all last year. What I fear most, however, is that the time will be slow to start the season. Hughes, Durutalo, Barrett, Niua, Iosefo, Leuta, and Tomasin each are coming off an extended period with the XVs team. Last year, the impact of having several players focused on the XVs World Cup in the build up to the season showed with some rough edges on certain players. Although the assembly for the fall tests was much shorter, it still a significantly different enough game to expect a slight readjustment for some of the most important stars of the squad.
The action gets underway Friday (12/2) in Dubai and concludes on Saturday (12/3). Make sure to check back for a complete recap of all the action.