Two NZ rugby sevens teams are each preparing for very different goals. The All Blacks Sevens men’s team are a week away from the Dubai Sevens leg of the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series. Their wish – to correct a two year slump in form.
The women’s team, the Black Ferns Sevens, have different goals. They are the current Series Champions. An accomplishment only broken in the 2016/17 year, when Australia took a march on them; claiming the series, and importantly Olympic Gold. Their aim – ‘keep on, keeping on’.
Each have separate objectives, and each have put much into preparing for this stage in a busy year ahead. Both sides’ players are preparing to face the challenge ahead. And that is set to kick-off in Dubai on December.
— World Rugby Sevens (@WorldRugby7s) November 27, 2017
As the sides are acclimatizing in Dubai, we look at each here; the two squads just announced [teams to be finalized prior to Day One]. The changes and challenges, retirements and replacements from the respective 7s teams.
NZ Men’s and Women’s Squads Announced for Dubai Sevens
With both teams at the opposite ends of their respective standings, the motivations are hugely different. Reflected in the selections, they showed one more than satisfied with their match day side, as the other having to choose wisely to make a competitive squad.
For the women, they begin at the same level as their Black Ferns XV namesake–World Champions. The perfect position, although…with every other team wanting to take you down.
The men’s team is still in transition. While that has been spoken of previously, at this stage it really does apply. Clark Laidlaw is guiding the team and his aspirations are matched to the team, and how well they can begin 2017/18 here at Dubai.
Both face tough competition, and even if the men are ready for Dubai Sevens competition, they might feel that it is a fresh start. Whereas the men’s XV side know their standing: ranked number one. For their sevens namesakes, it’s going to take a huge effort.
Women More Successful Yet Still Need to Work Hard
Driven by success, teams that are at the top can find it hard to replicate it. They continue at that same level. Some of the best can maintain it for several years, but a continuum of performance is harder to create.
So for the Black Ferns Sevens head coach Alan Bunting, his goal must be to change that mindset. To not do the same–meet high standards yes–but not just replay last season. Because if they stay at the same measures, they could find the opposition ‘racing past them’.
The Black Ferns Sevens are starting strong in the first leg in the HSBC Women's Sevens Series.
— All Blacks Sevens (@AllBlacks7s) November 16, 2017
What the side can rely on, are the individuals. Strong both as a team, yet the components that make up the squad are surely the most experienced of the Women’s Sevens Series. From the front, Sarah Goss is developing a legacy of performance. A sure leader, and one who can finish off tries as well as any of the men.
Naming players, you can see the quality. Strength lies in Ruby Tui, Stacey Waaka, Kayla McAlister and Theresa Fitzpatrick. Experienced women, who have the stamina to perform from Round One, to Round Five.
Rising Stars Keep Side Refreshed
To ensure that the established players are kept ‘on their toes’ the next generation must too be highlighted. Kat Whata-Simpkins and Alena Saili will challenge for starting places–and that is a good thing. Each leading team must include those who can apply pressure internally. If not, some become stale and Bunting and his coaching team need to retain freshness.
While not playing the volume of tournaments, the Black Ferns Sevens still put as much into their games. Seven minutes is a blur, with women tackling harder than ever. That is, unless you are Portia Woodman. Then, your speed can get you in-and-away from tackles with ease.
— Ultimate Rugby (@ultimaterugby) November 26, 2017
Woodman has the rugby world at her feet. Voted the Women’s Player of the Year, as much for her role with the XV’s team. But it is on the sevens field, where Portia Woodman displays her real skill. Like a female Christian Cullen, effortlessly evading tackles while putting in defence when needed.
With Woodman, Goss and the depth of the ‘Sevens Sisters’ squad, if that team starts well at the Dubai Sevens, then all other teams must still play catch-up. The side is very, very good – but must work tirelessly to retain that place. To work at improving at each step towards the main goals: HSBC Women’s Sevens Series, Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast, and finally the big one. The 2018 Rugby World Cup Sevens!
Dubai Sevens – Pool A: New Zealand, USA, France, South Africa
All Blacks Sevens Must ‘Switch it On’
To get back to where the New Zealand men’s sevens team was, this young group has to switch on immediately. On the world circuit, there is no ‘warming up’. If you cannot switch on in game one, you can be tripped up – and with only three games in Pool play, you do not have any room to experiment.
That would have been all done, as the new training hub in Mt Maunganui allows the men and women to concentrate on readying themselves. Head coach Clark Laidlaw has the resources….what he does with it, is up to the group he selects from.
— All Blacks Sevens (@AllBlacks7s) November 22, 2017
The All Blacks Sevens finished in fourth place last season. That was only eight points above the US team, so how times have changed since when the New Zealand team dominated. Learning that all the other teams caught – and then overtook – the New Zealand sevens side, was a bitter pill for fans and players to take.
Since Laidlaw assumed the role 100% it must be seen as a positive. Full focus on squad training, building combinations and in developing the new players. Why is that critical? Because two of the longest serving team members retired over the last two months.
Retirements and Replacements
DJ Forbes is a legend in the men’s game of rugby sevens. He holds records in both tournaments (89) and was a key figure over 11 years. He leaves a massive hole–that cannot be discounted. And few will try to assume the same role, but none can quite be quite as good as DJ.
The other was Sherwin Stowers. A quiet hero, but as much of a key-link in the chain that was the successful NZ7s side. Like Forbes, a part of World Series winning teams, Commonwealth Games and a World Cup winner. Their combined experience would have been invaluable, so the All Blacks Sevens have to quickly put men in place to hold those positions.
So for Laidlaw, he has to develop a squad that has both the attributes of experience, as much as potential. Looking through the squad, names stick out: Tone Ng Shiu, who impressed last year. Joe Ravouvou, a big man who has a very exciting feel to him. If those men can gel with the established team members, then it might be the rebirth of a major force.
2017/18 Success Built on Two Key Men
In the past, players like Rieko Ioane and Liam Messam made their starts in sevens. Bright lights, but players that went on to greater heights. The true building blocks of successful squads is the right combination. Several exciting players, men with speed and then the key to a strong Kiwi group; Scott Curry and Tim Mikkelson.
These two men will be keystones. Named as co-captains, experienced and determined. If fit and firing, they will be vital. A fit All Black Sevens squad can go far. They must build in confidence–work hard at it. And learn from their mistakes quicker than in the last two years.
No verdict, no presumption of instant success. 2017/18 is going to be a long road with the targets being: HSBC Sevens Series, Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast, and finally the big one. The 2018 Rugby World Cup Sevens!
Dubai Sevens – Pool D: New Zealand, USA, Argentina, Samoa
The Dubai Sevens starts on Thursday November 30, where the women begin their series defence. The men open the first leg of the HSBC Sevens Series on December 1.
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