HSBC New Zealand Sevens Preview
After a month and a half, the HSBC Sevens World Series returns to action. The teams head to Wellington, New Zealand for the third leg of the series. The first stop of the year in Dubai proved that team USA’s late season success last year was not a fluke. It also seemed to fit with what we’ve come to expect in recent years. The second stop in South Africa threw expectations out the window. With nearly identical rosters–except for New Zealand–the four teams that made the semifinal in Dubai failed to reach the semifinal in South Africa. In fact, England, runner-up in Dubai, ended up the bowl runner-up.
The shakeup in South Africa has trickled into the New Zealand Sevens as it sets the pool draws. As I’ve pointed out many times before, success on the series begets success because it leads to better pool matches. Here are the pools for Wellington:
|Pool A||Pool B||Pool C||Pool D|
|New Zealand||Fiji||United States||Australia|
Pool A has garnered the most attention in the build up. New Zealand is seeking to bounce back from a disappointing season that has seen the lineup decimated by injuries. The season barely underway and New Zealand has already been forced to hand the captaincy to veteran Tim Mikkelson due to a season-ending injury to captain Scott Curry. The real excitement, however, has not been on who is missing from the All Blacks Sevens squad, but who has been named. The two-time World Cup champion and former heavyweight boxing champion, Sonny Bill Williams has been tabbed for his first sevens cap. Williams was known to be in the mix, but it was unclear when he would join the roster. He will enter with tremendous expectations before a home crowd.
Pool A is a difficult pool to predict. It seems a certainty that South Africa will reach the cup quarterfinal with wins over Russia and Scotland. It also seems certain that Russia will remain winless. It is the third time in as many tournaments that Russia and Scotland will meet in pool play. In Dubai, Scotland was the narrow victory (17–14). In South Africa, the Scots dominated Russia (33–10) on the way to a bowl title. So far, the only team Russia has proven capable of beating is Portugal. Then again, every team has proven able to beat the Portuguese this season.
The wildcard in Pool A is New Zealand. With a chance to recuperate from a mountain of injuries, it seems likely that New Zealand will continue its perfect mark of always reaching the quarterfinal. The injured side that started Dubai was able to reach the cup semifinal. The side that headed out in Cape Town, however, may well be threatened by Scotland. Ultimately, Pool A should come down to New Zealand vs. South Africa to end Day 1, with each nation moving to the top tier competition.
Pool B provides some intrigue, but should be fairly predictable. Due to a surprising run to the final in South Africa, Argentina claims the top seed. It will be interesting to see if Argentina can recapture the magic that it found in the last tournament. The reality, however, is that Argentina got by a depleted New Zealand and an over-performing Kenya to reach the final. Although the Argentines acquitted themselves well against South Africa, the Blitzbokke were clearly the better side. Over the past year, Fiji has been the best team in the world and will likely make up for the mistakes that led to a quarterfinal loss to France. Japan and Wales will likely battle it out to decide the higher seed for the bowl round, with Wales being the favorite. Wales should also benefit from the return of Tom Isaacs for the first time since 2010. Isaacs was part of Wales 2009 Sevens World Cup champion squad.
Pool D will give a disappointing team Canada its best hope of reaching the cup round. Kenya shocked the world in South Africa but has proven inconsistent the last several seasons. The Kenyans will be a tough out. They return captain Andrew Amonde and Humphrey Kayange after missing the first two tournaments. Barring a strong surge from Canada, the top two spots in the pool should go to Kenya and Australia. The pool decider between those two sides should go to the team that executes on the day. Portugal, standing at 0–10 on the season, should enter Day 2 at 0–13.
Pool C is an extremely important pool for team USA. The Eagles have proven able to compete with anyone, but it is a pool draw like this where the Eagles need to prove that they are more than upset artists. France shocked the world beating Fiji in the Cape Town quarterfinal. Prior to that victory, France was 1–1–1 in pool play. But France is a solid side that dominated European Olympic qualification. The French defeated the Eagles in Dubai and dominated the bowl round. Similarly, England reached the cup final in Dubai and then fell to the bowl round in South Africa–getting blanked in the bowl final by rival Scotland. Also lurking in Pool C is Samoa, one of only four nations to ever win the World Series. This pool is as unpredictable as they come. Team USA could finish first or fourth and the same could said for any other nation.
Team USA is led, as always, by captain Madison Hughes. Hughes looks to build on a team-high five-try, fifty-nine-point showing in Cape Town. Joining Hughes are usual faces in Zack Test, Folau Niua, Carlin Isles, and Perry Baker. Also in the lineup from the first two legs are Will Holder and Matai Leuta. Also returning for his third tournament of the season is Kevin Swiryn who made headlines by announcing his retirement from international XVs, where he recently led the Eagles in the Rugby World Cup as captain, to focus on pursuit of Olympic gold. Nate Augspurger returns after missing Cape Town for a wedding. Augspurger’s replacement for South Africa, Thretton Palamo, returns to the lineup after requesting an early release from his contract with London Welsh to remain with the USA sevens program through the remainder of the series.
Most notable in the lineup are the omission of Maka Unufe, Garrett Bender, and Brett Thompson. Unufe and Bender each appeared in every leg of last year’s series. In their place, Coach Mike Friday has named debutant Ben Pinkelman and juggernaut Danny Barrett. Barrett was a breakout star in last year’s series and this summer for the Eagles XV program in the lead up to the World Cup. For those hoping for the return of Andrew Durutalo, I have good news and bad news. The bad news is that Durutalo will not be returning to the sevens team any time soon. The good news is that the reason is because Durutalo has scored a contract with the Sunwolves–the recently added Japanese Super Rugby franchise. While it is a great honor for Durutalo to do what only Todd Clever and James Paterson have done before–being a capped Eagle and Super Rugby player–it is a loss for team USA.
At just 21 years of age, Ben Pinkelman edges out Hughes (23) for the title of youngest player on team USA. Pinkelman’s star has been on the rise in recent years. Playing for Colorado State, the Denver Barbarians, and USA representative sides, Pinkelman has garnered numerous awards in XVs. He was named the 2015 MVP for Colorado State, the man of the match in his first ever start for the USA Select XVs in a victory over Uruguay in 2014, and was named the 2014 Youth Rugby Player of the Year by USA Rugby. He brings valuable club-level 7s experience, but is set to receive his first taste at the international level. There are high hopes for Pinkelman’s future, but it is likely that he will be used sparingly in New Zealand.
The action gets underway Saturday (1/30) in Wellington, New Zealand and concludes on Sunday (1/31). Make sure to check back for a complete recap of all the action.