With a massive year for sevens rugby upon us, there must be huge pressure on powerhouse South Africa – yet you would not know it from speaking to Blitzbokke coach Neil Powell ahead of the Dubai Rugby Sevens.
They are reigning HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series champions and defending champions in Dubai – usurping Fiji of both accolades in 2017. There are also the small matters of April’s Commonwealth Games – of which they are also champions having won the title in Glasgow in 2014 – and the Rugby World Cup Sevens taking place in San Francisco in July.
It appears as if there are too many oval-shaped balls in the air for South Africa and Powell to juggle, but he’s not feeling any pressure.
“There’s a lot of expectation but I’m looking forward to it,” said the 39-year-old at the Dubai Sevens press conference at the Crowne Plaza in Festival City.
“It’s not really too much to worry about. We had a great off season, had a lot of fun planning how the season will pan out for us.
“We have the second team here (in Dubai) so maybe some of those players will come into the squad during the season, give the key players a rest. We have a big squad of 22 and we will have to rely on all of them.”
Asked if the Commonwealth Games, being played on Australia’s Gold Coast, was a particular distraction, he added: “It’s a difficult one because it’s right in the middle of the season. Right after Hong Kong.
“I think the priority of the Commonwealth Games is really high because we won it last time, so hopefully we can defend our gold medal there. It’s key we manage the players well so they’re hungry and fresh for the Games.”
All the team’s competing in the elite men’s Sevens Series category will know the feeling coming into the new season in Dubai this weekend. It’s similar to 2016 when the Rio Olympics was on the horizon and constantly in people’s thinking.
For Powell, the Olympics and Commonwealth rank higher than next summer’s World Cup Sevens because of the multi-sport aspect.
“It’s a tough question,” he says when asked where the World Cup ranks.
“Obviously the Olympics is the ultimate tournament as it’s the biggest sporting tournament in the world. Also the Commonwealth Games because it’s a multi-sport tournament.
“I think it’s going to be crucial to manage the players this season, a squad of 12, who can play all 12 tournaments. We want them all fresh for those outside tournaments if you want to be successful. Maybe resting them one or two tournaments.”
Also coming into Dubai as defending champions in the UAE are Allan Bunting’s New Zealand women’s sevens side.
The Black Ferns, much like the Blitzbokke, are also series holders too. They have won all five editions of the HSBC Women’s World Rugby Sevens Series since being established in 2012/13.
And despite claiming five of the six tournament wins last season and finishing 16 points ahead of fierce rivals Australia, the scary thing for New Zealand’s opponents is Bunting believes they can only get better.
“We certainly feel after our review last year that we were running at about 75 per cent of our potential, so there’s some huge amount of space for some gains and growth, so we’re focused on that,” said the man who took over the side a year ago.
“We’re focused on doing things quicker and with a bit more intensity. There’s still a lot of growth left in our group.”
Asked if he was sounding out a warning to the rest of the field, he added: “It’s not really a warning, we just feel like we can still grow a heck of a lot. The management group too. So if we get better together we know we’ll be able to reach our potential.”
And he sees last year’s runners-up as their main threat once again.
“Australia, they’re always a threat,” he said.
“They’re a great side and one of the most consistent in the world so they’re definitely a threat. But every team is. We’re focused now on South Africa, France and the USA. The US beat us last year so we’re not looking past our first game. Then we go to the next one.”
The 2017 Emirates Airline Dubai Rugby Sevens kicks off on Thursday at The Sevens Stadium and it is set to be the largest event to date with 837 rugby and netball matches taking place across the three days.
The World Rugby Sevens Series, the World Rugby Women’s Sevens Series and the largest Invitation Tournament will descend on The Sevens Stadium for one of the most popular sporting and social events in Dubai.
“Now in its 48th year, the Emirates Airline Dubai Rugby Sevens has seen tremendous growth and participation from teams and spectators alike,” said Boutros Boutros, divisional senior vice president, corporate communications, marketing and brand for the Emirates Group.
“We are proud that this event has grown to become the most popular sporting event on the Dubai calendar. We are looking forward to another successful event as we continue to make this a bigger and better experience each year.”
World Rugby Chairman Bill Beaumont commented: “There is a huge amount of excitement ahead of Dubai and, of course, ahead of a busy season of sevens rugby for both the men’s and women’s teams.
“As well as the rounds of the men’s and women’s series, many teams have the Commonwealth Games and Rugby World Cup Sevens to look forward to as the popularity of the game continues to thrive and benefit from the Olympic effect.
“This season will see South Africa men and New Zealand women aim to retain their crowns, but with so many teams vying for that number-one position in the standings in both series, it’s shaping up to be another memorable season.”
The Emirates Airline Dubai Rugby Sevens will showcase world-class rugby on all eight pitches, the biggest netball tournament to date and plenty of entertainment on and off the pitches.
As always, the Dubai Sevens is the perfect place to enjoy a variety of food and beverages and with five different F&B zones there will be something for everyone. The popular Sabaa 7s Club will be even bigger and better with brand new interactive games and added attractions by Hallmark and The Toy Store. The Virgin Radio Dubai Teen Zone returns, and this year will see a variety of Star Wars activities on offer in anticipation of the new Star Wars: The Last Jedi release.
Entrance to Thursday’s action is completely free and will include international action on pitch 1 with the launch of the World Rugby Women’s Sevens Series and the Invitation Tournament.
Tickets for the Emirates Airline Dubai Rugby Sevens are now on sale and fans can save Dh100 by buying them in advance. Tickets can be purchased online at www.dubairugby7s.com or at selected outlets including Costa, The Toy Store, Hallmark, Prosport, Virgin MegaStores and Park n Shop.
Ticket Prices for General Admission are:
Powerhouse names like CNCF Legends, J9 Legends and Xodus Steelers have applied a stranglehold on the International Vets section at the Dubai Sevens over the last decade, but the SBA Pirates are hoping to commandeer the trophy this year.
In a bid to level the playing field, Emmanuel Barry has called on the help of a few powerhouse names from the rugby world – including 72-times capped France legend Serge Betsen.
The Pirates – named after the Serge Betsen Academy – will hope to make more of an impression after exiting at the Plate semi-final stage on debut last year.
But with Les Bleus legend Betsen and several other former internationals on board – including fly-half Yann Delaigue (20 caps) and Number 8 Francis Ntamack (younger brother of 46-times capped Emile) – Barry and the Pirates are hoping to hit the high seas of success this weekend.
“This is rugby. The aim is always to win,” said Barry, 42, a former Abu Dhabi Harlequins player who also spent time in the Middle East with Doha and Bahrain.
“This is the second year we have registered this team. Many of us played at the Sevens before but we used to play for other teams. Last year we finished second in our group and ended up losing in the semi-final of the Plate.”
Despite his optimism, Barry is aware of just how difficult the treasure of a trophy will be to get their hands on.
In the previous decade, CNCF Legends have won five of the last nine Trophy finals, including four in a row from 2008-11. Xodus Steelers won the next two before CNCF won again in 2014, with legendary South Africa scrum-half Joost van der Westhuizen’s J9 Legends winning back to back crowns the last two years.
“It will be very tough. I suppose there will be the usual suspects to watch out for such as J9 Legends, 100 World Legends Project, Joining Jack Vets, Bali Legends and of course the CNCF Legends,” said Barry.
“But we have seen a lot of high quality teams last year such as the Mo Bro Vets, Stefan’s BHF, Gulf Legends or Crusaders who could surprise everyone, and of course there are teams that we know nothing about.”
Betsen set up the Serge Betsen Academy in 2004. The charity aims to help underprivileged children in his native Cameroon.
After he was unable to play last year, Barry joked Betsenwas adamant he was playing last year so that the Pirates lived up to the swashbuckling style he adopted during his playing days.
“We registered the team last year and straight away asked Serge for the authorisation to link up with the Serge Betsen Academy,” added prop Barry.
“He said yes straight away but unfortunately could not be with us last year. He watched us from a distance, probably didn’t like much the fact that we lost two games, so ended up coming this year.
“The others didn’t come to play with Serge but because they fancied a run and seeing what the Dubai Sevens is all about. Serge being able to play with us has been the cherry on the pie.”
Barry and the bulk of the team play together at a vets rugby club from the small French town of Pontarlier, near the border with Switzerland.
The Pirates are fresh from their local season, which only ended two weeks ago. Although Barry admits coming from the snow to the sun will be a bit of a shock to the system.
“We have had to stop training due to the amount of snow on the frozen pitches, so the weather of Dubai is something we all look forward to,” he added.
“We will also come in fancy dress. I can’t reveal what we will be dressed as but can give you a clue, it’s in the name of our team.”
With the academy set up to help children in Cameroon, Barry revealed donations will be made to the SBA.
“Having played the other teams we realised that, through sponsorship, it would be a great way to raise money for a charity that was close to our hearts,” he said.
“There are so many to be honest, we know that many of the other teams play for great causes too and we really admire them for it.
“The SBA is unique in the sense that it is bringing education, healthcare and generally speaking a future to children in need, and all that through the powerful vector of teaching them the values of rugby.”