Dubai Sevens Preview
On Friday (12/4), the HSBC Sevens World Series gets under way in Dubai. Although the Dubai Sevens was held around the same time last year, due to this year’s Rugby World Cup, the Dubai Sevens will serve as the inaugural tournament of the season, instead of stop number 2 as it had before. This new season will also see the number of legs expanded from nine to ten.
This season, fifteen core teams and one invitee per tournament, will compete for series glory. This year, however, may look a great deal different than previous seasons. Although each team will desire to win tournaments and claim the series title, the focus of a great many teams will be in experimenting with lineups and players in preparation for the Olympics this summer. Included in this shake up, many teams will be trying to incorporate stars of the fifteen-aside game into the seven-man code.
The pool draw for Dubai is as follows:
|Pool A||Pool B||Pool C||Pool D|
|Fiji||South Africa||New Zealand||England|
Fiji heads an interesting Pool A. Last season was a remarkable year for the Fijians as the islanders claimed a second series title and became only the second nation (New Zealand the other) to claim multiple titles. Fiji should be expected to sweep through Pool A en route to defending the series crown. For Argentina, 2014–15 was a forgettable season. The team started with three consecutive cup round births, but only managed one more cup round appearance the rest of the year. The Argentine season fell to its lowest point in Tokyo when the team lost in the shield final. The South American champion will need a bounce back season if the team hopes for a strong showing in the first South American Olympic games.
The most intriguing teams in Pool A, however, are Canada and Japan. Japan, the victor of the 2014 qualification tournament, earning core-team status in 2014–15, struggled mightily last year. Wins for the Japanese were very few and far between. Only three times did Japan win a match on day 2 and only once reached the cup round after a strong showing on home soil. The poor results led to relegation after a single season.
For Canada, the story is, perhaps, more dramatic. After a record-setting season in 2013–14 that saw Canada finish sixth in the series and come up just short of a first-ever tournament title in Scotland, the 2014–15 season was a gigantic step backward. It was not until late in the season that Canada finally started to look a bit like the team many had expected it to be. Despite the down season, there were certainly high marks. Canada claimed a famous first-ever victory over New Zealand. Canada also finished the summer with a successful gold medal defense in the Pan American Games. With the return of Phil Mack and Nathan Hirayama to the regular lineup, Canada should look more like the 2013–14 team. If Canada can continue to improve, Pool A should likely be topped by Fiji followed by Canada, Argentina, and Japan respectively.
Pool B may well top Pool A for intrigue. As with Pool A, top seed South Africa is the obvious favorite to top the pool. The second cup qualifier is much less clear. Scotland, a team whose future was publicly in doubt at the end of last season, is the favorite based upon last season’s performances. Samoa, the perennial power, fell on hard times. Last year, Scotland was a consistent participant in the cup quarterfinal (6 appearances) with a best fourth place finish. Samoa, to the contrary, only reached the cup round twice. The Samoans began the season with a loss in the cup final and did not return to the cup round until a fourth-place finish in Hong Kong. The rest of the season was spent in the consolation bracket.
For Samoa, with new coach Damian McGrath at the helm, this season is about more than just reestablishing national pride in a once-mighty team. The vast majority of the core teams, and non-core teams Japan and Brazil, have already booked a place in the Olympics. Three teams, however, are still looking ahead to the last qualifier in June to secure the final bid. Canada, Russia, and Samoa are the clear favorites from a sixteen-team field. The only core team left on the outside looking in is Portugal.
Just as this season is important for Samoa, so too is it for Russia. Russia has come from a tradition of modest success in sevens to now a core-team. In 2007 and 2009, Russia claimed the Sevens Grand Prix Series title. On the world scene, success has been more modest–claiming bowl titles in 2007 and 2008 in Hong Kong. Russia now has its opportunity to show what it has on the premiere sevens platform after winning the qualifier at last year’s Hong Kong Sevens. Russia’s pride in victories at the Olympic games is well known. With the luster of Olympic gold, there can be little doubt that Russia is a nation set to take sevens seriously and is poised to surprise this season.
Pool D is likely the most predictable pool at least in deciding who the top two teams are; the order of those teams is not so clear. England, having assembled a prototypically English season in 2014–15 that earned a fourth-place finish and an Olympic bid for team Great Britain, tops the pool but should not be considered a strong favorite over Australia. The Australians are surely still bitter over a tough late-season slide that allowed England to move to the fourth spot and relegated Australia to fifth. These two powerhouse nations should clearly top the pool.
Rounding out pool D are Wales and Kenya. Wales, after riding weak pool draws to consecutive cup round births to start last season, never again broke into the top tier competition. Wales, although always a potential upset in the making, is a far cry from the team that won the 2009 Rugby Sevens World Cup. Kenya, a semifinalist in that 2009 World Cup, have taken major steps back since a fifth-place finish in 2012–13 under the leadership of now-USA head coach Mike Friday. After a player strike and doping scandal, Kenya managed only two bowl victories and one cup round appearance in 2014–15. Perhaps more alarming, Kenya, the clear favorite to secure the African Olympic bid, struggled to best Zimbabwe in the qualifier final (21–17). Although Kenya is a proud rugby nation, it seems highly unlikely that the team will provide a serious threat to contend for the cup round in this tournament.
Pool C houses perennial champion New Zealand and upstart team USA. New Zealand, though suffering a down season a year ago, should be back to form this year. The All Blacks bring in two-time world cup champion Sonny Bill Williams and Liam Messam will be joining the team. Although the transition to sevens from fifteens can be rough, the talent in the All Blacks roster should put the team back in contention for the season title.
For the Eagles, unlike the All Blacks, last season was not forgettable. Instead, the 2014–15 season was the best in American history. After a wretched showing in 2013–14, the Eagles put together a sixth-place finish on the year with three semifinal appearances and a first-ever cup championship. The team also carried the strong finish from the London Sevens into a dominating run through the NACRA sevens and a bronze medal finish in the Pan American games.
Team USA’s roster for Dubai is full of familiar faces, but is still a major shakeup from the team that won London and NACRA. Back are speedsters Carlin Isles and Perry Baker who join Garrett Bender, Folau Niua, Maka Unufe, and Madison Hughes as players who competed in all nine World Series tournaments last season. Alongside is Zack Test, who missed London due to injury and returns from a strong showing for the Eagles XVs in the Rugby World Cup. Joining the regulars from last year’s team are Matai Leuta and Nate Augspurger who each made four rosters.
Faces that are less familiar to new fans, but veterans of the Eagles are: Brett Thompson, a veteran of all nine tournaments in 2013–14, who returns from playing professionally overseas last season; Will Holder, who produced six tries in two tournament appearances in 2014; and Kevin Swiryn, a former captain of the Eagles. Swiryn is certainly the most surprising inclusion in the roster. Swiryn has not been on the series since 2010. Nevertheless, he brings a veteran experience that includes what had been the only cup final appearance until the team claimed the London Sevens title.
The most notable omissions are Danny Barrett and Andrew Durutalo. Barrett and Durutalo became budding stars for the Eagles XVs in the World Cup this past fall. Unlike Barrett, Durutalo is not in residence at the OTC and comes as little surprise that he is not on this initial roster. Barrett’s omission comes as a much bigger surprise. It is likely that Barrett’s omission for Dubai and likely omission for South Africa, the following weekend, says little about his future with the team. The conditioning and mindset of fifteens is vastly different from sevens. Although Thompson and Test were also in the World Cup roster, the transition back to sevens form for back players is more natural than for players in the pack, such as Barrett and Durutalo. It is also possible that each is recouping from injuries accrued over a summer of intense international competition. Without Barrett and Durutalo, the team will have a very different look and feel. Barrett became known as a playmaking force with his physicality and Durutalo, no less physical, was a master of the stolen ball. That said the Eagles have still named a strong side.
In order to top the pool, the Eagles will need to post a first-ever victory over New Zealand. It is certainly within the realm of possibility, but the odds go to New Zealand here. Instead, the important goal on day 1 is to fend off France and Portugal. This will require the Eagles to reverse the trend of poor results in Dubai.
France and Portugal will look to play the role of upset artists. Portugal, once a dangerous team on the series, has fallen to cellar dweller status. But for the record setting futility of Japan, Portugal would have fallen to the sword of relegation. The Portuguese side was the only core team to fail to reach the cup round at any point in the season. Even worse, Portugal never progressed past the bowl semifinal. Barring a major turnaround, Portugal will likely be relegated at season’s end and may be a great distance from returning to the series.
France, to the contrary, has shown much more life of late. Last season, France twice reached the cup round and was a bowl finalist four times–winning once. Moreover, France ran through the European qualifying tournaments without a single loss, claiming all three tournament titles in the process. Despite the rejuvenated French aspirations, the team should be held out of the cup round by Australia and England.
The action gets underway Friday (12/4) in Dubai and concludes on Saturday (12/5). Make sure to check back for a complete recap of all the action.