Canada 7s Preview
Fresh on the heels of an historic USA Sevens, the HSBC Sevens World Series moves north to the rugby hotbed of Vancouver for the second annual Canada Sevens. With both North American squads registering strong showings in Vegas, the hometown crowd and those who make the modest skip over the border from the northwest United States will take their seats with high expectations and lofty dreams of glory for their teams. The draw for Vancouver is probably the most well balanced draw of the season:
|Pool A||Pool B||Pool C||Pool D|
|South Africa||Fiji||USA||New Zealand|
Pool A is topped by the series dominating South African Blitzbokke. Through five tournaments, South Africa has four gold medals. In that span, South Africa has lost a total of two matches. To put matters into perspective, South Africa has lost as many matches as Japan has won in the same span. Mind you, Japan finished fourth in the Olympics over the summer. Nevertheless, South Africa has still shown it can lose, at least to one team. In three contests this season, England has bested South Africa twice. The first time was the shocking win for England (19–17) at the South Africa Sevens in Cape Town back in December. England extended it to a winning streak in pool play at the Australia Sevens in Sydney just last month (21–15). But South Africa reversed its fortunes (29–14) in the final in Sydney to finish with yet another tournament crown. The battle for Pool A should be exciting and may well be a preview of a third South Africa-England final this season. The only other team this year to reach the final has been Fiji, losing all three times to South Africa.
For me, the expected highlight of Pool A will start a mere twenty-two minutes before South Africa faces England. Although Kenya has a great deal of talent behind sevens legend Collins Injera, a shocking cup victory to build on a first-ever title in Singapore just under a year ago, does not seem to be in the cards this weekend. With both Kenya and Chile expected to start 0–2 in pool play, the match between the two sides should be nothing more than for pride and a modestly more favorable pairing in the consolation bracket. However, for a side with realistic goals of qualifying for next year’s series as a core team–indeed, perhaps only behind Spain as a favorite to do so–Chile is looking not only for experience but a marquee victory. In the challenge trophy quarterfinals last week, Chile fell behind three full scores at the break, stormed back to a 21–19 deficit with time expiring in the second half, and was a dropped pass on the wing away from the famous victory. Ever since the modern fifteen-core-team model was put into place, only Japan, a year removed from core status, has ever won a match. Chile will be thrilled to reverse those fortunes and just may do so on the back of impressive execution for a relatively inexperienced side.
Pool B should prove little challenge for the nation second only to New Zealand for hardware in the sevens trophy case. Fiji has reached three of five tournament finals this season and was in solid form in Vegas this past week. Somewhat surprisingly, Fiji has twice lost in pool play this year. Unsurprisingly, one of those losses was to South Africa, the first of two losses to the Blitzbokke in Wellington. Ironically, the other loss was to Wales.
For the past several years the Welsh contingent has struggled to return to the relevance that saw them win the Sevens World Cup in 2009. Until this year, almost every time Wales advanced to the cup round it was easily identifiable as the product of a weak pool draw. A conclusion easily demonstrated by Wales’s persistent failure to win a match in the knockout round. Prior to this season, Wales had not one a knockout match in the cup round since the 2014 Hong Kong Sevens and had not reached a semifinal since the 2013 Scotland Sevens, just two tournaments removed from a series best runner-up in Hong Kong. This season started with a run to the semifinals in Dubai, beating Australia in the quarterfinal, and was accompanied by two other top-eight finishes, although both were returns to form as far as losing two from two to close the competition.
After a thirteenth-place finish in Vegas, Wales does not seem likely to push Fiji, but Samoa and Argentina might. Despite an out-of-nowhere cup win at the 2016 Paris Sevens, Samoa has struggled to match its success that led to the series title in 2009–10 and made Samoa a side to be feared. Under new coach Sir Gordon Tietjens, Samoa will expect great things in the future. At times in Vegas–specifically a pummeling (24–0) win over Scotland–Samoa looked in good form. Nevertheless, the side has yet to finish in the top nine, settling for tenth twice and last once.
The likeliest candidate to advance alongside Fiji from Pool B is Argentina. The Argentines have finished ninth or better in four consecutive tournaments, including three straight quarterfinals. A win over New Zealand at the USA Sevens showed that Argentina should be able to outclass both Samoa and Wales. But a draw with Kenya coupled with squandering a 19–0 lead to the United States before being blanked by Australia (14–0) shows serious weaknesses that may prevent Argentina from reaching its full potential.
Pool D may best be described as the pool of teams disappointed in their seasons so far. New Zealand has been out of form for the past several years. A side once undefeated against the likes of the United States now holds a losing records to the Americans over the last two seasons, following a bronze medal loss in Vegas. Presently, the All Blacks Sevens stand in fourth place, ten points back of third-place England. If the standings hold true at year’s end, this season would tie the 2005–06 & 2008–09 seasons for New Zealand’s worst finish at fourth. While that may not sound like much to American fans whose team has never finished higher than sixth, for New Zealand it is borderline disastrous.
New Zealand has never missed the quarterfinal in the 141 tournaments held in series history. A depleted roster in the 2015 South Africa Sevens in Cape Town was the closest New Zealand has come in a while to missing the cut. Although highly unlikely, the Pool D draw poses a threat to New Zealand once more. Canada is surging after struggles the past couple years. A semifinal appearance in Wellington along with a quarterfinal run in Vegas buttressed against a home crowd makes Canada dangerous. Granted, the other three tournaments have seen Canada finish thirteenth, so maybe not too dangerous. Still, Canada’s three losses in Vegas came at the hands of South Africa, Fiji, and England–i.e. the top three teams in the world.
Scotland is probably the greatest threat to nudge New Zealand out of the top spot. After struggling to reach the cup round last season, the Sots won a first-ever cup title in London to close the season. This season started with a great deal of promise with the team finishing sixth, fourth, and third. Then an unprecedented tumble from bronze medal to last-place a single week later has left Scotland wallowing in the consolation bracket. A tough pool draw in Vegas prolonged the suffering, but wins over Canada and Russia would put Scotland back on track.
Russia is a team not likely to advance out of the pool but could trip another team up along the way. The Russians defeated the United States in Sydney on its way to winning the challenge trophy. The team backslid hard in Vegas and will certainly struggle in a tough pool.
Pool C is topped by the two teams tied at fifth in the standings. The United States Eagles move north after a best-ever finish on home soil with a bronze medal win over New Zealand that could have been so much more without a devastating loss in the semifinal to eventual champion South Africa.
For the Americans, the lineup remains the same. This is excellent news in light of Captain Madison Hughes being held out of the bronze medal final hampered by a knee, though Coach Friday said after the match that Hughes would have been available had the team advanced to the cup final.
Hughes is joined by the bruiser Andrew Durutalo, who scored the game winner over New Zealand. Also a fixture of the team is Danny Barrett who, after struggling in Wellington, has blown the doors off the series with consecutive dream team honors in Sydney and Las Vegas. There was little doubt that Barrett would step his game up after following below his own expectations in Wellington, but the level that he has taken it to is truly breathtaking. Another hero of Vegas is Maka Unufe who scored three tries in the tournament, but, perhaps, none bigger than the opening try against New Zealand, a match in which Unufe got the rare start.
Perennial faces on the squad Perry Baker and Martin Iosefo bring with them a combined five tries from Vegas. Baker, who was slowed by injury in Sydney, has become a try-scoring machine the past season and a half. A two-try showing in Vegas is certainly below his blistering pace earlier this year and last, yet it is largely because his teammates have picked up the scoring themselves, preventing Baker from having to take as many chances backing just himself. Iosefo’s three tries in Vegas, however, were an amazingly strong showing from him. His recent form has been extremely impressive and a key in helping the Eagles reach consecutive top-six finishes after twice missing the quarterfinals earlier in the year.
Matai Leuta, Stephen Tomasin, and Folau Niua round out the core of the every-tournament squad that have helped springboard the Eagles into the top five of the series standing. Tomasin came out big in the bronze medal final where every point counted, slotting two conversions in Hughes’s absence. Folau Niua, despite a fierce wind remained steadfast in restarts.
Three men who got their first caps of the season in Vegas–Ben Pinkelman, Pat Blair, and Walt Elder–will earn a second in Vancouver. Pinkelman came on for a huge score on the back of excellent use of substitutions against England in the pool decider. Pat Blair also earned honors with his first career try for the Sevens Eagles.
The pool, as always is not easy. The United States will need a second win on the season over Australia. The first came in Dubai, but Australia has improved dramatically since. Based upon their performance this past weekend, the United States should be the slight favorite over Australia, in what should be expected to be the pool decider. France will also pose a major threat to derailing the Eagles’ efforts. In their lone meeting this season, the teams battled to a 19–19 draw in Wellington (the worst tournament for team USA on the season). Last season, French claimed the 3–2 season edge over the United States. A loss in the challenge trophy semifinal along with shutout losses to South Africa and Canada leaves France with a lot to prove this weekend. If the United States can get by Japan–a team that has fallen to pitiful form this year–and France in the first two matches, then a quarterfinal birth will likely be clinched before facing Australia in a predicted pool decider.
The action gets underway on Saturday (3/11) and concludes on Sunday (3/12). Check back for a breakdown of the 2017 Canada Sevens.