The HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series will begin its fifth round in Las Vegas next weekend, to kickoff the North American leg. After the US combined women’s and men’s tournament, the action moves north of the border to culminate a week later in Vancouver, Canada.
The Blitzboks of South Africa continue to lead the men’s world series, followed by England and defending champions Fiji. South Africa and England have their core sides from the past two seasons while the rest of the teams are rebuilding to a degree, after the Rio Olympics.
Teams like Canada and Wales have shown some improvements along with Scotland; who on their day, can beat any side. Conversely, Samoa continues to struggle under new coach Sir Gordon Tietjens and are really missing the leadership of Falemiga Selesele. New Zealand may have found their long-lost playmaker, in rookie Vilimoni Koroi while the Aussie youngsters continue to impress against the pain of constant injuries.
With teams introducing so many new players to the Sevens Series, Last Word On Rugby (LWOR) will be highlighting some fresh names that you need to familiarize with. A wide group that have really grown in the past few rounds. These players are a broad mix of talent, and has seen outstanding rookies make big strides in their careers [so far]. Being handed the chance, many are coming out of their comfort zones to show their true potential.
HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series: The LOWDOWN
Primed from the very start of the season, South Africa were the most well prepared of all the sides. Over four rounds, this side has accumulated 85 out of a possible 88 competition points–a better than imagined start for Neil Powell (see below).
The South Africans will now be without established stars Seabelo Senatla and Kwagga Smith, who join Super Rugby for the remainder of the season. Not too many players could fill the vacuum left behind, but ones to watch will be Zain Davids and Swive Syoizwapi. Davids is a big flanker who has speed to burn. He will be vital on the breakdowns, a major component of the Blitzboks success. Soyizwapi will fill in for Senatla’s pace, but must still play a part as Justin Geduld’s understudy.
Rosko Specman has been a kingpin for the Blitzboks off the bench and will be even more vital, just like Geduld will be going forward. Kyle Brown, Werner Kok, captain Philip Snyman and Ruhan Nel continue to impress with their composed team work. Their ability to win quick recycle ball and turnovers has been their main strength, with a bench that will hurt you further when called upon.
They will be hard to beat–but it’s not impossible.
The English have their core side from last season, including seven Olympians. However, they struggle [like the current English weather]. On their day, they can be world beaters. The next, they look like they couldn’t put up an umbrella to stay dry.
With the perfect arsenal to contain the Blitzboks, they have big forwards and fast backs. Leading the way often is Dan Norton, Tom Mitchell and Richard de Carpenter (to name a few). Coach Simon Amor is still looking for that consistency from the team. Find that, they will be hard to contain.
The Fijians are rebuilding under new coach Gareth Baber, though in reality they are struggling and only showing glimpses of their prowess. Fitness and injuries continue to plague the team, as well as rebuilding combinations.
However, like in past seasons they have unleashed new stars to the game. Kalione Nasoko (picture below) has really grown-up since his debut in Dubai. He was outstanding in the Sudamerica Series and continues to grow. He needs to work on his discipline and general play, but alongside the experienced players, will be key this season going forward.
Setareki Bituniyata is another player who has stepped in to fill the shoes of Semi Kunatani, but has that discipline issues that he needs to work on. He runs good lines, and is vital during restarts. The duo, together with Nacanieli Labalaba will be the ones to watch for Fiji this season, among their well renowned reigning series holders, Olympic champions and fellow countrymen.
The Scots have continued to improve ever since their wonderful victory in last season’s finale in London. Scott Ridell and Mark Robertson; who both have more than 50 tournaments under their belts, continue to lead this young side to ‘soar to greater heights’. Well supported by Jamie Farndale, Scott Wight, James Fleming and Joe Nayacavou.
They have introduced two new rookies into the game recently and the duo didn’t waste their time to show us their potential. George Horne is showing that size doesn’t matter–very much like Jerry Tuwai. Even though Gavin Lowe (see main picture) has been around awhile, he is finally coming of age. The duo add new dimension to the Bravehearts game, as they look for more consistency.
They might be minnows to some, but in the world of rugby they are the ‘giant killers who never give up’. Rebuilding under Damian Karauna, and certainly missing key players like Lote Tuqiri, Kameli Soejima, prolific try scorer Lomano Lemeki and Katsuyaki Sakai. The latter made a timely return in Sydney, which boosted the sides confidence and resulted in a big win over Canada.
However, their find of the season is Pouali Teaupa (see above picture). Two tournaments in, and the young Teaupa is blazing up the DHL Performance Tracker with his total work rate. Great, but even more work is needed from the Asian side, to further develop a promising Pacific Islands flavor. Do that, and they will be hard to beat.
They might be struggling, exploring new avenues, attempting to build new combinations and a winning culture but it is a steep learning curve. Yes, they have unearthed some players who will be the future of Samoa sevens.
Laaloi Leilua is one player that has stood out for the Samoans. The nippy playmaker is your usual rugged Samoan player who can create opportunities out of nothing. He will continue to grow under Tietjens and Stephen Betham’s tutoring.
On a side note, the performance of Falemiga Selesele at the Brisbane Tens along with Tila Mealoi, just reiterates the call to get them back into the team.
The Scarlets slayed the high flying Fijians in Sydney, with Morgan Williams, Luke Treharne and Sam Cross playing the game of their lives. Consistency again, let them down when they needed it, but remember this HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series competition is tough.
Even so, you have to find ways to tackle that factor, in order to be competitive. Lloyd Evans, Owen Jenkins, Ethan Davies, Adam Thomas and Ben Roach have really stepped up, with young James Botham (grandson of legendary cricketer Ian Botham) all developing great abilities in the early stages of the 2016/17 season.
With many of their senior players joining the growing injury list, the Aussies have called on their young brigade to take over the mantle. They have introduced more than 10 replacements in the past four rounds alone. Introducing new blood, who (credit to them) didn’t waste a minute to impress.
Tim Anstee (above picture) didn’t waste his chances, so did Charlie Taylor, Mick Adams and Dylan Pietsch. They reached the semi finals in Sydney and have shown potential to compete with the best on any given day.
Now just give them a fit team for more than one or two rounds, and it will result in better finishes by the Aussie Thunderbolts.
The South Americans are rebuilding, with their head coach wanting to mold 25 players to be sevens specialist. They have introduced players to fill voids left by Bautista Ezcurra, This includes Nicolas Bruzzone and Axel Muller, who both featured for Toulon in the Brisbane Tens.
Three players have shone through for them; Jose Barros Sosa, Mataias Osadczuk and Lautaro Bazan Velez in the opening rounds. They have blended in well with rookies Lucas Gonzalez Rizzoni, Lucas Bellotto and Felipe Del Mestre. The young guns are carrying the mantle with senior players like German Schulz, Franco Sabato and Gaston Revol helping Argentina return to the top-tier of the world series.
The Canadians reached the semis in Wellington and are showing clear improvement over other more fancied sides. Yet, they are still inconsistent and Damian McGrath will be trying to rectify that. Justin Douglas was outstanding for them in the Oceania leg, with Harry Jones and Adam Zaruba.
John Moolight leads by example, alongside playmaker Nathan Hirayama, Lucas Hammond, Pat Kay and Mike Fualeifau who provide good go-forward ball. Rookies Caleb Jordan, Karsten Leitner and Isaac Kay put on a brave show too, which earns them a recall in their home leg in Vancouver on March 11-12.
It’s been awhile since we last saw a Fijian don the Kiwi jumper, and having two has been a bonus. Vilimoni Koroi and Rocky Khan both play halfback for the New Zealand team and have been revelations. Khan has been around before but the latter is only into his third tournament–and Koroi has shown true potential. He looks to possess skills that have been missing since the days of a certain Tomasi Cama [current interim co-coach].
Koroi (pictured below) is quick off his feet, has a big sidestep, reads the game well and covers his defensive role very well. He holds all the hallmarks of how Cama once ran the game for the Kiwis. His continued selection shows the confidence his coaches, and senior team mates have.
They are rebuilding the Kiwis, molding the senior men with the new, like Andrew Kneestub and Trael Joas. Coaches Cama and Scott Waldrom are growing a balance, with Sione Molia finally giving his true potential, along with Regan Ware.
Reaching the final is next on the list, so with the support of the Sevens Sisters at Las Vegas, it could help the men reclaim some silverware too.
The French are unpredictable yet inconsistent throughout every season. And while they show up when needed, they usually break through to the Cup qualifying stages. Good, but it is not yet enough. With kingpin Virimi Vakatawa away on Six Nations duties, someone has to emerge out of obscurity.
Jeremy Alcardi has been around awhile, and appears to be finally coming of age displaying some great rugby sevens awareness. With young Sacha Valleau and the hugely experienced Terry Bouhraoua, the mix is the key for Les Bleus.
LWOR Seven Most Outstanding Rookies of 2016/17
Tim Anstee (AUS), Kalione Nasoko (Fiji), Mataias Osadczuk (ARG), George Horne (SCO), Vilimoni Koroi (NZL), Pouli Teaupa (JAP), Laaloi Leilua (SAM).
Most Improved Team: there is a chorus of votes for Scotland (see main picture). The men from the British Isles have grown ‘stronger as one’. Showing good development, Scotland have placed well and only need to go from semi final, to final to allow themselves a chance to claim another HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series tournament.
Who Will Shine Through in 2016/17?
There are no easy predictions. Apart from going unbeaten on Day One, the knockout stages seem to be the Blitzboks strength. After enduring some tough times, 2016/2017 seems to see their combined maturity help them cope under pressure; which others can only admire. And where New Zealand has experience, they need to believe they can–losing to England in Sydney showed how the conditions got the better of the group.
In Las Vegas, gladly for players it will not be as hot as Sydney, so better suited to quality rugby sevens. From Vegas, the series hits it’s midway point and the crucial point. Unless a team can deny South Africa from reaching the semi finals, they will hold a points advantage. Only when that can be bridged, can another team battle them….but until a Fiji, Canada, England or Australia step-up, it appears to be a Blitzbok benefit season.
The HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series heads to the Las Vegas Sevens in March. The combined tournament see’s the men complete the weekends action from Saturday March 5.
“Main photo credit”