Tokyo 7s Preview
After a thrilling stop in Hong Kong, the HSBC Sevens World Series makes its next stop in Tokyo for the Japan Sevens. With Fiji topping New Zealand in HK and series leader South Africa settling for a third consecutive third-place finish, the top three positions in the series standings are separated by a mere three points: South Africa (110), Fiji (108), and New Zealand (107). A win in Japan for any of these three sides will secure at least a tie for first place.
For team USA, they will look to build on what was, based on their rapidly elevating standards, a somewhat disappointing showing in HK. The side came out slowly against Kenya in the opening match before bouncing back in the second half to take the match. From there, the Eagles set a record margin in victory over Wales and battled to a draw with powerhouse England despite playing the last minute down a player and backed deeply into their own territory. The result saw the Americans top their pool for the second time in the last two tournaments and has run the string of pool matches without a defeat to six. However, despite what appeared to be a favorable matchup on paper in facing Samoa in the cup quarterfinal, team USA once more started slowly and fell into a deep hole early and failed to recover. In the plate semifinal, the team rebounded well against Argentina before suffering a devastating loss to Australia in the plate final when a pass to an unmarked player failed to be taken cleanly, ultimately resulting in a knock on to end the match with the men from down under the four point victors.
|Pool A||Pool B||Pool C||Pool D|
|Fiji||New Zealand||South Africa||Samoa|
Pool A is headed by a red-hot Fijian team that has defeated New Zealand in the last two tournament finals to make three cup victories from the six tournaments this year. The second seed in the pool is England. The English are in a make-or-break battle with Australia for the fourth spot in the series standings. The top four teams at season’s end will gain automatic qualification to the 2016 Olympic games. Despite posting a 2-2-1 record in Hong Kong, England’s two defeats came at the hands of Fiji (14-12) and Australia (12-7). Either match could have easily gone the way of England. Rounding out the pool are Wales and a heartbroken Hong Kong side that failed to live up to high expectations last weekend at home in being shutout in the series qualifying tournament’s quarterfinal to eventual tournament champion Russia.
Wales started the season with consecutive cup quarterfinal appearances but have fallen on hard times since. The one-time Rugby World Cup Sevens champions have entered a cycle of tough pool draws after benefiting from favorable pairings early on. This side will be desperate to avoid a fifth consecutive tournament of disappointment, especially after a 28-point defeat to team USA last weekend. Barring a Fijian or English letdown, Wales will once more fail to reach the top tier competition come Sunday. Hong Kong is the seventh team to participate in the series as a non-core team invitee. To date, not a single invitee has won a match. Hong Kong will be anxious to break this streak. The team thinks itself good enough to compete on the series and will now have a chance to prove that belief not ill conceived. Absent an upset over Wales, Hong Kong’s best chance for posting a win will come in Sunday in either the bowl quarterfinal or the shield semifinal. A possible pairing in the shield semifinal with Japan bodes well for an HK victory.
The top two seeds in Pool A should claim the top two finishes in the pool as well. England had a chance to pull the upset in the quarterfinal last weekend. Fiji should be the heavy favorite to win the pool decider but not a lock. England has the talent and speed to keep the Fijians in check and, given a couple favorable bounces of the ball, can take the win.
Pool B remains unchanged from Hong Kong and should generally follow suit with what happened there. There is one major exception, however. In Hong Kong, Portugal had a horrible tournament but still added an important historical footnote. Despite failing to win a single match, the Portuguese earned a draw against New Zealand. Portugal was one difficult conversion kick away from pulling the monumental upset. Gordon Tietjens’s All Blacks Sevens should come out with both eyes leveled at remedying that embarrassment. In HK, New Zealand topped the pool with two wins and the draw. Australia followed behind with their only defeat at the hands of New Zealand. Scotland ultimately topped Portugal in a hard-fought match that went to the Brits 14-12. Portugal may be able to tip Scotland for the three spot, but neither team should harbor realistic expectations of a cup round birth. In the end, the top spot will go to the winner of New Zealand vs. Australia–probably the Kiwis–and the third spot should go to winner of Scotland vs. Portugal–a coin flip.
Each team in Pool D has failed to reach the cup round in at least two tournaments this season. Argentina, sitting in sixth place–one point clear of the USA–leads the pack with four cup round appearances from six tournaments. Samoa, sitting atop the pool draw, has only reached the cup round twice this year–the cup final in Australia and fourth place in HK. France, one spot behind Samoa in the series standings at 10th, has only reached the cup quarterfinal once this season. The host side, Japan, has posted a record of absolute futility this season. The Cherry Blossoms are in their first season on the tour after winning qualification last year in Hong Kong. That the side has won only two matches this season, and only once progressed past the shield semifinal, places them in near-certain peril of relegation from the series.
Pool D proves success breads success. Samoa, despite an abysmal four-tournament stretch that included a defeat to Japan–one of their two wins–has garnered an extremely favorable pool draw. Japan is the only side that would provide an absolute shock should it reach the cup quarterfinal. That said, Japan is in dyer need to do just that. With only three tournaments remaining, team Japan have eked out an atrocious 7 standings points. Portugal, the next-closest team, has more than three times as many points (22). Samoa and Argentina are the most likely teams to advance from Pool D. France is certainly capable as well. The result will go a long way to answering the lingering question of whether Samoa is back.
Pool C brings together South Africa, team USA, team Canada, and Kenya. There can be no doubt; Pool C is the toughest pool in Tokyo. It will be the fifth time this season that the Eagles and Blitzboks square off. So far, South Africa has won three and drawn another. In Las Vegas, the sides faced twice; battling to a 19-19 draw in pool play, before South Africa demolished a team whose minds were still on a tough semifinal loss to New Zealand. Although the Americans are capable of winning this match, it is the kind of match where the little things matter. In the final pool match in Hong Kong, American Folau Niua was sent off with a yellow card for foul play after apparently kicking an English player in the face while the two were tangled on the ground. The poor decision resulted in a six-match suspension for Niua that will be completed after pool play in Tokyo. Niua is a starter for the Eagles and usually presents the restart kicks as well as takes some of the more difficult conversion kicks from the touchline. The loss of his skills is likely the hair too much to get the USA over the South African hurdle.
Based upon recent play, the United States should have a fifth cup round birth in hand by their third match of the day. However, matches against Canada and Kenya are not sure wins. Kenya posted a 14-0 lead into the half in the opening match against team USA last week, before a 21-0 run in the second half gave the match to the Americans. On the season, team USA is three for three against Coach Mike Friday’s former team and should look to continue that streak. One often-overlooked factor in matches like last week’s slow start against Kenya is that Hong Kong is a 12-hour time difference over Eastern Standard Time. This adjustment in time zone can often play out with sluggish starts for teams. With more time to adjust to the Asian time zones, the Eagles should be less susceptible to such a slow start.
Additionally, the match with Canada is not an easy pairing either. The two North American sides are bitter rivals, which always spells trouble in crucial matches. This season, team USA has the 2-0 upper hand over team Canada. After a 17-15 upset in Australia, by Vegas, team USA had become the favorite and lived up to the billing with a twenty-point shutout of Canada in the cup quarterfinal. A win against Canada is never assured, especially down a playmaker like Niua. Still, this is a match that the Eagles are expected to win. It is also a side that team USA may well see again in June in a NACRA cup final to decide which side will gain the North American bid to Olympics.
The likeliest outcome is for South Africa to top the pool with three wins, USA second with two wins, and Canada edging Kenya for third. It is entirely possible, however, that the second team out of Pool C may share a three-way tie with a 1-2 record, thereby relying on the points differential to seed the teams.
The action kicks off April 4th. Check back here for updates and a recap to see who can claim glory in Japan.