The men’s HSBC Sevens Series has ended, with South Africa crowned the 2016/17 champions. A side who claimed their second World Series title, in terms of the shortened game of rugby sevens, they are seen as a team filled with fresh rugby sevens (7s) talent. In comparison to the established kings of the sport–Fiji and New Zealand–it appears to be a case of new rugby 7s stars v classic heroes.
And while that is seen as a good thing; with a new parity at the top of the game, some fans will miss those old days. The times when Fiji would manage to just beat New Zealand (NZ) and vice versa. With England occasionally straddling the cusp of the top tier, others like Samoa would also have periods of success. But many will traditionally see the heroes of the game.
In the ‘flying Fijians’ and the 12-time champion Kiwis, it was not so much a war, but a calculated attack. And as the frequency and quantity of rugby 7s has increased, so too have the challenges. An effort to dethrone the two ‘hero sides’ is both a good thing; and depending on how you see it, a bad thing.
In 2017, There Are So Many More Challengers
The record book will show it, the upsets are increasing. The new rugby 7s stars are on the rise. No team has been undefeated–although South Africa had an incredible run of 20-plus games unbeaten. Over the season of the World Rugby HSBC Sevens Series, there are so many more challenges. In both the men’s and the women’s game, you can see the baton being changed ‘more often’. Scotland triumphed over New Zealand for the very first time in London only days ago.
So if you were to make any comparison, it might be seen as a positive. One where sides who begin a ten tournament season can imagine that they will have many opportunities to challenge the hero teams. In pool allocation, the random nature might be an important component.
The all important draw can see a team like Spain face Fiji, Canada or Australia. So the previously powerhouse of Fiji could have two tough games in quick succession; and Spain could then target the second or third game of the day, as opportunity to knock them over.
New Rugby 7s Stars Out-performing Classic Heroes
In the current rankings, South Africa hold the honours. Then England are on the rise, overtaking the Olympic Gold medal holders. With New Zealand in fourth spot and not winning a tournament for the first time ever–alarm bells are ringing. And why wouldn’t they be.
It appears that the new rugby 7s stars have the wood over the old dogs. Not that the Fijians or Kiwis are old, it is just a time for a changing of the guard. Age can be a benefit, experience is usually an important component to success. So why are the classic heroes struggling?
The top six inches are still where the game can be won and lost, knowing the teams and players you face helps. So the research on your opposition can give you an advantage. Not that Fiji and the NZ 7s are not doing this, it is just that an intense sevens minutes of high-paced rugby has evolved from the days gone by.
But boy, those days gone by were brilliant.
Classic Heroes Battle
While reminiscing is good entertainment, it cannot change the evolution of the sport. The micro-skills are now unique to the games speed, the quick-bursts of energy and technique at the breakdown mean that a XV’s player can less easily slip-back into rugby sevens.
So when the Kiwi team invited Super Rugby/All Blacks players to change sport, it was a bigger challenge. In 1998 and in the days of Christian Cullen and Jonah Lomu, instinct paid dividends. Today, a game plan and an awareness of strengths and weaknesses, is that much more important.
New Rugby 7s Stars Need a New Game Plan
It is always hard to compare errors, players or even the referee standards. What seemed to be a game where many things were tolerated, today they would be called back. And the set-play of today is there to maximize second/third or even multiple phases, as a strategy is incorporated into the game.
A team like the Blitzboks have been very effective many areas. Counter attack is not the only option, as they have both the offensive-defense and shear attack that already had teams in two minds. Many highlights exist, with players like Seabelo Senatla and Werner Kok. Multi-skilled, well drilled and intuitive .
Not only South Africa, but the highlights package would not overlook some of the game-changers who have entered the sport. Number one on the list is Perry Baker. The US Eagles player known as the ‘speed stick’ because once he engages high gear, he is gone! A real game breaker, and as the speeds increase, so too do player sizes.
Slim built players like Perry are now a rarity. Bigger, more physically able players are the norm. James Rodwell having that perfect combination of size, agility and endurance. The key indicator for many is quick recovery from up to 100 meter runs, to be ready on defense again within a matter of seconds. The speed of the game is one consistent factor that has never changed.
2017, the Year of the Impact Player.
And then some of the lesser sides have also brought in new rugby 7s stars. Think Sam Cross of Wales, and Justin Douglas from Canada, as well as a Japanese player also struck a fine tune, in Siosifa Lisla. But from the developing nations, an example is ‘Rookie of the Year’ Matias Osadczuk.
But overall, it is the multi-talented players like Dan Norton who appear to be a 2017 version of the Eric Rush-style player. Tall, rangy and with both the tackle skill and hands that ensure he can both challenge the runners with a big tackle, and then offload or breakout in an instant.
So the constant in the game is the enthusiasm. If a Waisale Serevi played the game today, he would obviously be successful. Marika Vunibaka might still be a terror, but the more multi-skilled Osea Kolinisau appears to be the perfect evolution of a rugby 7s player. And Fiji and New Zealand both still have weapons. The likes of Regan Ware and Sam Dickson have the right base for head coach Clark Laidlaw to work from in 2017/18.
It will be interesting to watch how the Classic Hero teams recover. Third and fourth are not disrespectful placings. Nowhere near the bottom of the table, but when traditional fans reflect back to those classic days, they might just think ‘when did all these other sides get so dam good?’
“Main photo credit”