London Sevens Preview
Eight tournaments down, one to go. The 2014–15 HSBC Sevens World Series reaches its conclusion this weekend in London. Unlike several seasons in which the series title was functionally wrapped up heading into the final weekend, this year’s champion will be decided on the pitch in Twickenham. Three nations still hold a colorable chance to claim the series title: Fiji (147), South Africa (142), and New Zealand (139). To put things into perspective, the cup winner will lay claim to 22 points; 19 to the runner-up; 17 for 3rd; 15 for 4th; 13 to the plate winner; 12 to the plate runner-up; and 10 for a loss in the plate semifinals. A New Zealand cup victory and a Fiji loss in the cup quarterfinals, and the All Blacks Sevens may claim a staggering 13th series championship–out of 16 seasons–and fifth consecutive.
If you want even more excitement, on paper, it looks like the United States should be the team to face Fiji in the cup quarterfinal. Imagine that, a team in fear of relegation a year ago, now, on the final weekend, poised to have a say in deciding who will claim the series title. This is the excitement of sevens rugby that will take its rightful place in the Olympic games in 2016. Speaking of the Olympic games, the top three teams have clinched a top four finish and with it automatic qualification for the Olympics. The fourth automatic spot remains, in theory, up for grabs. England boasts a strong 16-point lead over fifth-place Australia. This means that England need only do better than win the shield (13th place) and the fourth spot will go to Great Britain.
Last week, in Glasgow, the pool assignments were unusual, to say the least. This was the product of some surprising results in Tokyo. The pools are allotted based upon prior results. In Glasgow, things were more normal, and the resulting pool draws are much more familiar.
|Pool A||Pool B||Pool C||Pool D|
|Fiji||New Zealand||England||United States|
Pool A provides what looks to be the most difficult pool. At the top is a Fijian team that not only leads the series, but has won three of the last four tournaments. Barring a massive upset, Fiji will once more cruise through this pool. The second spot in the cup quarterfinals is up for grabs. Samoa has been an absolute enigma this year. The Samoans started the year with a cup final loss to Fiji. Since then, Samoa has only reached the cup round once–in Tokyo–and have three times finished in the shield round. In theory, Samoa could put together a strong Day 1 and claim the second seed. The more likely scenario is that the winner of Canada–Argentina will decide who is playing for the cup on Day 2. Although Canada has had a strong run of success in the last two tournaments, last week, Argentina defeated Canada 21–12 in pool play. There is also a strong possibility that Canada, Argentina, and Samoa will each end with a 1–2 record with seeding decided on points differential.
Pool B is led by a New Zealand team that has fallen below the lofty expectations that the All Blacks Sevens carry into every season. Despite the subpar season, New Zealand remains a favorite to top Pool B. This disappointing season for New Zealand has still meant five cup–final appearances and one tournament championship. Australia, the presumptive second seed has posted poor showings in the last two tournaments. In Tokyo, the Australians failed to reach the cup round and lost to team USA in the bowl final. In Glasgow, after an undefeated Day 1, the Aussies went winless on Day 2. The vulnerable Australians will face a Welsh side that has disappointed all season. After reaching the cup round in the first two tournaments–a feet that, at the time, I said appeared to be the product of favorable pool draws–Wales had not even reached the bowl final until Glasgow. In the final outing of the season, and on British soil, Wales will look to shock Australia in the early afternoon match. Ultimately, even an out-of-form Australian side should prove too much for a fired-up Wales.
The absolute wildcard in Pool B is Japan. Prior to the seventh tournament of the season, Japan had only once finished above last in any leg of the series. At home, in Tokyo, Japan shocked the world and reached the cup round. Due to the poor season, Japan’s hopes of avoiding relegation are running on life support. Only Kenya and Portugal are even within theoretical reach. Kenya (38) sits twenty points ahead of Japan (18). There is a single scenario by which Japan can overtake Kenya: a last place finish for Kenya and a cup victory for Japan. The more realistic target is Portugal (27). Portugal is the only core team to have, thus far, not reached the cup round this season. With the nine-point gap between Japan and Portugal, regardless of the scenarios that could play out on Day 2, Japan will have to reach the cup round to avoid relegation. If Japan storms out with a win-at-all-costs mentality, it is still unlikely that the team will reach the cup round from Pool B. Nevertheless, the Japanese may be able to stir things up with an upset of either Australia or Wales.
Returning for its third tournament this year, team Brazil slides into Pool C. Each tournament brings a non-core invitee to round out the numbers. Brazil is the only team this season to have been invited multiple times–no doubt due to Brazil’s automatic qualification for the 2016 Olympic Games as the host nation. To date, not a single non-core team has won a match this season. The abysmal record stands at an astonishing 0–40. Russia, a team that will join the core-team ranks next season, provided the best hope for snapping that losing streak with tough losses to France and Portugal last weekend. Though Brazil might notch a victory, it is much more likely to occur on Day 2 than in pool play. Kenya, despite a fairly disappointing season is still in a class above Brazil. The top two seeds in the pool should prove to be the top two sides at the end of Day 1. England has yet to miss the cup round this season and the English have posted four top-three finishes this season. Scotland has been more inconsistent than their southern rivals, but still has sported too much class to disappoint on British soil. At the end of Day 1, Pool C should track its pre-tournament seeding.
Pool D is headed by team USA. The Americans started in Glasgow with a humiliating defeat to team Canada 40–0. Ironically, the Eagles would end the tournament with their best finish of the season–4th place. In the third-place match, Coach Mike Friday opted to go with a very different lineup than has been his usual starting side all season. Through the first half, England looked as though it would see to it that the United States’ tournament was bookended with crushing defeats. Instead, in the second half, the Americans added a few scores of their own to add some window dressing to a comprehensive defeat.
After breaking through to the cup quarterfinal in Tokyo–likely due to a weak pool draw–France returned to its more typical form as a bowl competitor. The United States lead the season series 2–1 over France and should look to start the day by extending that mark to 3–1. That said, the Eagles have looked sluggish, at best, in their first match of the last three tournaments. France is certainly talented enough to catch the Americans napping. A loss to France in the opening match may well end team USA’s hopes of reaching the cup round. A failure to reach the cup quarterfinal will leave the USA vulnerable to being overtaken by Scotland in the final standings.
The second match for the United States will be Portugal. As noted above, Portugal has had a disappointing season. On the season, team USA has defeated Portugal in all three matches and posted two shutout wins over margins greater than thirty points. If the Americans are firing on all cylinders, they should enter their third match against South Africa with both teams undefeated. This would be a mirror scenario to what happened in Las Vegas at the USA Sevens. There, an inspired team USA battled to an impressive draw with South Africa. A big factor in the success of team USA will depend on whether star player Zack Test is healthy. On Day 2 in Glasgow, Test suffered an apparent ankle/lower-leg injury against Australia. He was forced from the pitch and did not return in either of the subsequent contests.
The season finale gets underway this weekend in England. Check back for a breakdown of all that was the London Sevens.