Sydney 7s Preview
Just one week removed from the New Zealand Sevens, the HSBC Sevens World Series heads 1,300 miles west across the Tasman Sea to Sydney, Australia. It will be the first time in the Australia Sevens’ thirteen-year history that Sydney–host of the 2000 Olympics–will host the Series. It is only fitting that the tournament will be held in a venue that has seen Olympic competition, as this is the year that the short code of rugby takes its long-overdue place at the world’s premier sporting event.
Heading into Wellington, there were a great many questions. For the series, the biggest question was whether a semblance of predictability would return after a surprising semifinal field in Cape Town. For the local fans, a disastrous start for their New Zealand All Blacks Sevens after a subpar 2014–15 campaign left many wondering whether a team long favored for gold in Rio could even end up on the podium. Among the list of questions was also whether the surge in American success could be sustained despite a tough pool draw.
In Wellington, the All Blacks Sevens, sporting some new faces after a run of injuries in the first two tournaments, rose to the challenge and won the cup. The other semifinalists were perennial contenders South Africa, Fiji, and England. In short, normalcy returned. For team USA, the Eagles were able to survive a tough pool to keep a rapidly growing streak of quarterfinal births alive, but failed to win a match on Day 2 for the first time since the 2015 New Zealand Sevens.
As always, the results of the prior tournament set the pools for the current tournament. For Sydney, here are the pools:
|Pool A||Pool B||Pool C||Pool D|
|New Zealand||South Africa||Fiji||England|
Pool A is headed by the resurgent All Blacks Sevens. On the back of a strong showing at home, albeit twice requiring near miraculous finishes against South Africa, New Zealand is the clear favorite to top Pool A. Although Canada claimed the Kiwi scalp for the first time ever last season and Portugal pushed New Zealand to a draw, the team appears to have finally found its form. On the other end of the spectrum, Portugal has posted an abysmal 0–15 record on the Series this season. Canada, having entered the season with hopes of utilizing talent that led them to a remarkable 2013–14 season, has disappointed so far. Although the best is certainly yet to come for team Canada, this pool draw does not favor a strong showing on Day 1. It seems more likely that Canada will find its footing in the next leg when the Series heads first to Las Vegas and then, for the first time, to Vancouver.
What many had expected to be the key headline for Pool A has turned into controversy for the host nation. Heading into this season, everyone knew there would be a serious draw to the seven-a-side game for superstars of fifteens. During the World Cup, the biggest name was unquestionably two-time World Cup champion Sonny Bill Williams joining the All Blacks Sevens. Another champion of fifteens whose star power rivals Williams is Quade Cooper of Australia. The Wallaby international and Super Rugby champion, was expected by many to join Australia for this tournament. Cooper made the journey from his professional club in France to Australia to compete for a spot in the lineup and was denied the opportunity to debut at home. This has turned into a storm in the Australian papers describing Cooper’s displeasure with the decision. So, if you were hoping to see Sonny Bill Williams square off against Quade Cooper, you’ll need to wait a bit longer. Nevertheless, the Australian side should be a strong contender to push for the top spot in the pool after taking home the plate in Wellington.
Pool B might best be described as “here we go again.” This is the second pool this season to feature South Africa and Kenya–the other was the South Africa Sevens. Two teams meeting twice in the span of four pools is no big deal. What is significant, however, is that this is the fourth time in as many draws that Scotland and Russia will face off. South Africa is the clear favorite to win Pool B. The Blitzbokke currently sit atop the Series standings and have reached the last two cup finals. Nevertheless, in their only other contest this year, Kenya bested South Africa (14–12).
Despite the fact that Kenya could push to top the pool, it is more likely that Kenya will need to avoid Scotland to maintain its recent run of quarterfinals. After a respectable season just one year ago, Scotland has failed to reach the cup round this year. This is a talented Scottish team with players looking to earn a spot on team Great Britain. They have reached the bowl final in each of the first three tournaments and are a strong showing against Kenya away from reaching the cup round.
Like Kenya, Scotland needs to avoid getting caught looking up. Although Russia may only have two wins on the season, this is a team that can push more experienced sides. Last weekend, after starting 0–4, Russia blanked Wales (17–0) in the shield semifinal before falling (14–7) to France in the final. France is a side that tore through European Olympic qualification and took third in Cape Town. Additionally, two of the three matches between Scotland and Russia have been razor thin margins. In Dubai it was 17–14 for Scotland. In Wellington, 19–17. Only Cape Town saw a dominant victory for Scotland (33–10). It might happen, but don’t bet on it. Instead, Pool B should end the way it began: South Africa and Kenya heading to the quarterfinal and Scotland and Russia back to the bowl
Pool C is probably the most intriguing. Atop the pool is Fiji. After closing last season in phenomenal fashion to win the Series and winning Dubai, Fiji has had some poor showings. In Cape Town, it came against France in the quarterfinal, relegating Fiji to the plate title. In Wellington, it came in the semifinal with a 31–0 throttling at the hands of South Africa. Fiji’s coach, Ben Ryan, has said that when each team plays its best, Fiji wins. Clearly, twice Fiji has found a match to falter. Despite the Day 2 mishaps, Fiji has dominated pool play, posting a record of 9–0 and a points differential of 350 for and only 74 against.
The intrigue in Pool C is the battle for second. Fourth-seeded France is just two tournaments removed from taking third place after defeating Fiji in the quarterfinal. Second seed, Argentina, was in the final in Cape Town and the plate final in Wellington. Although it is easy to say that Argentina’s recent success has been a product of matchups, that overlooks how well Argentina has played on the field. Argentina is probably the second best team in the pool, but France is a serious contender. When France plays a complete game, the French can beat anyone.
All the talk of Pool C and Samoa is the last team to gain mention. While Samoa has been a shadow of its former glory over the past two seasons, Samoa is still Samoa. The team reached the cup round in Dubai, won the shield in Cape Town, and won the bowl in Wellington. It’s easy to scoff at a bowl victory, but the simple fact is that only two teams can claim a 3–0 record on Day 2 and, in Wellington, Samoa was one.
This leaves Pool D. Although team USA was fairly disappointing–if you judge only by modern standards–in Wellington. The crucial task of reaching the cup round was accomplished. As I’ve said countless times, in the Series success begets success. Look at Kenya. Kenya is probably not the eighth best team on the series. But, because of a breakout performance in Cape Town, Kenya has had back-to-back favorable pool matches. The same was clearly the case for Wales to start the 2014–15 season. Wales reached consecutive cup rounds to start the year. Since, Wales has not only failed to reach the cup round but posted a last-place finish in Wellington.
Pool D is headed by an inconsistent team England. Team USA should have a realistic chance of besting England in what should be the pool decider, but the favorite in the match will be England. Japan and Wales are each potentially dangerous teams, but the Eagles should be expected to win those matches. As between Japan and Wales, Japan is definitely the better side of late. It’s a shame that Japan could not find better form last year to avoid relegation. It seems likely that Japan will win a return to the series as Portugal, Russia, or Wales tumble to relegation.
For team USA, the side from Wellington remains largely intact. Captain Madison Hughes leads the pack after a shaky showing in the last tournament. Since joining the team as the surprising, but perfectly suited, captain last season, Hughes has been a picture of consistency. His boot has proven the decider in many a match and has been invaluable. In Wellington, however, he looked human. His kicking game was not quite on. Granted, most of his attempts were tough touchline attempts. His form on the pitch also seemed less sharp than we’ve come to expect. I fully expect Hughes to bounce back and the team with him.
Also in the lineup are all-time American try leader and most capped player, Zack Test. Joining Test are speedsters Carlin Isles and Perry Baker. Baker leads the team with eleven tries for the season, though Isles (10) is close behind. The lineup also features Danny Barrett who made his season debut last weekend. Although Barrett never broke through for a score, his signature physicality was on display time and time again. No one on the series can mix the speed and power of a world-class athlete with the delivery of a barroom brawler quite the way Barrett can. Also in the lineup are regulars Folau Niua, Thretton Palamo, Nate Augspurger, Will Holder, and Matai Leuta. After limited action in Wellington for his first cap, youngster Benjamin Pinkelman also returns this weekend.
The only new face from last week is Martin Iosefo. Iosefo featured in six of the nine tournaments last season, scoring three tries. He joins the squad after Kevin Swiryn went down in the plate semifinal with what could be a very serious knee injury. Iosefo had to be called in from back home. The touring party included a would-be replacement in Brett Thompson. Unfortunately, Thompson suffered a torn ACL that threatens his availability for Rio. Both injuries are a major hit to a team looking to build a consistent core in advance of the Olympics.
The action gets underway Saturday (2/6) in Sydney, Australia and concludes on Sunday (2/7). Make sure to check back for a complete recap of all the action.