Warren Gatland heads into Wales’ final game against Argentina in an enviable position.
Barring a humiliation in Santa Fe, this summer tour can already be deemed a success for the men in red.
Building on the back of a promising Six Nations, wins to date against an albeit depleted South Africa side, and a solid Argentina team, have shown Gatland an almost unknown squad-depth a little over a year out from the World Cup.
After seeing the names listed for the touring party, few Welshmen would have carried much hope going into the controversial one-off fixture with South Africa in Washington, or the two-game series in South America against an Argentina side buoyed by the scintillating form of the Jaguares in Super Rugby.
Shorn of the talents of the influential Alun Wyn Jones, No.8 Taulupe Faletau, Liam Williams and Leigh Halfpenny to name a few, Wales have been able to blood youth and hand out some vital game-time with the 2019 showpiece looming.
Leadership has been another key element for development on the tour. More than a few eyebrows were raised when Cory Hill and Ellis Jenkins were handed joint captaincy ahead of the tour, but it is an inspired choice from Gatland.
Hill is establishing himself as a regular member of the second row alongside Wyn Jones, and is the likely heir to the throne when it comes to the leadership role in that engine room when the Swansea man hangs up his boots.
He has already shown his improvement as a player with superb handling and running with ball-in-hand highlighting his Six Nations campaign. Leadership, it a skill generally learned through experience and his skippering of the side in last week’s win over the Puma’s is a terrific start.
It’s a slightly different deal for Jenkins, who is one name in a hugely competitive battle for back-row slots. However, while the likes of James Davies, Josh Navidi, Justin Tipuric and Sam Warburton would all lay claim to the jersey, there is a real sense Jenkins is being groomed for the long-term captaincy – and with it that open-side jersey.
With added depth and competition will come difficult decisions for Gatland, but it will be a nice headache as he sculpts a side that can shine in Japan.
Joe Launchbury is losing his battle to play in England’s second Test against South Africa after missing training once again on Tuesday.
The Wasps captain has been unable to practise with the squad since suffering a calf problem 11 days ago, an injury that prevented him from participating in last Saturday’s 42-39 defeat at Ellis Park.
And the outlook on his involvement in the second instalment of the series in Bloemfontein is looking increasingly bleak ahead of Thursday’s team announcement.
“Joe was at training this morning (Tuesday) but was training on his own. He was movingly reasonably well so we’ll see where he is later in the week,” scrum coach Neal Hatley said.
“We’ll see if he’s able to train tomorrow. We need to see how he feels after seeing the physios.”
If Launchbury is ruled out, England will be forced into a dramatic back five reshuffle in light of Nick Isiekwe’s tactical substitution shortly before half-time in Johannesburg.
Having been pulled early in the first Test, Isiekwe is unlikely to play again in this series leaving Maro Itoje and Jonny Hill as the only recognised second rows in the squad, with Brad Shields also an option in the position.
There is better news over hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie, who has been cleared to play after picking up a hamstring niggle as a second-half replacement at Ellis Park.
“Luke was able to train. We did some live scrums and Luke took part in those. He’s good,” Hatley said.
England must topple the Springboks at Free State Stadium if they are to avoid a fifth-successive Test defeat and rescue the series after falling short in a pulsating opener.
“We’ve had a good look at the first Test and have identified the areas that we need to address and the areas which we thought we did well in,” Hatley said.
“First and foremost we want a win. We scored close to 40 points at Ellis Park so we’re pleased with a lot of the things we did in attacking including five tries. It’s just other areas that we need to tighten up on.”
It has been one of the most competitive seasons on record as both the women’s and men’s series were decided by just two-point differences and both tournaments went down to the final day.
South Africa fought an incredible battle with Fiji in the men’s series to retain their title with victory at the final leg in Paris, while Olympic champions Australia won their second overall title ahead of rivals New Zealand on the women’s series after reaching the podium at every one of the five rounds.
The end of season awards provided a chance to celebrate the men’s and women’s sevens players, coaches and teams that are the stars, ambassadors and role models of the sport.
Drum roll please…. and here are the winners
Portia Woodman is no stranger to the top try-scorer accolade and her 43 tries helped the Black Ferns Sevens win three rounds in finishing as runners-up to Australia.
Carlin Isles followed in his USA team-mate Perry Baker’s footsteps by claiming the men’s series award with an outstanding 49 tries. Upon receiving the award Isles said: “I’ve come a long way. I want to thank my teammates who share the workload. It is a blessing for me to be standing here.”
Rookies of the Year
Eroni Sau is the second Fijian to be named Rookie of the Year for the men’s series after being a clear winner in the fan vote ahead of his compatriot Alosio Naduva and Australia’s Ben O’Donnell. The 28-year-old featured in all 10 rounds in his debut season, using his powerful physique to score 37 tries.
France’s Coralie Bertrand, meanwhile, claimed the women’s accolade, having featured in all five rounds and helped Les Bleues enjoy their best season, reaching a first-ever Cup final in Kitakyushu and semi-finals in Langford and Paris to clinch the series bronze medal.
Fair Play Award
This award, selected by the match officials, recognises the teams who showcase rugby’s values of integrity, passion, solidarity, discipline and respect. Japan were awarded the women’s accolade after an event that saw them lose their core team status on the series, with Kenya the men’s recipients following an exciting season which saw them reach the final in both Vancouver and Hong Kong.
TAG Heuer Don’t Crack Under Pressure Award
These inaugural awards voted for by fans went to Australia’s Ellia Green and Ireland’s Mark Roche.
Green’s try against New Zealand in the Cup final of the HSBC Sydney Sevens, when she finished off Emilee Cherry’s break, beat Maria Ribera’s try to sealed a first-ever series win over Australia in Kitakyushu and Charity Williams’ last-gasp winning try against Ireland in Langford.
Roche’s kick with the final play of the match against England to snatch the bronze medal for invitational team Ireland at the HSBC London Sevens was a clear winner of the men’s award, beating Fijian Alosio Naduva’s last-gasp winning try against Australia in the Singapore Cup final and Matias Osadczuk’s break and calm head to send Renzo Barbier over for the winning try in Argentina’s Cup semi-final against South Africa in Las Vegas.
Capgemini Coach of the Series
Another inaugural category, selected by the series’ global innovation partner Capgemini, was won by New Zealand women’s coach Allan Bunting after successive victories in the last three rounds of the series in Japan, Canada and France as well as the Commonwealth Games title in April.
South Africa coach Neil Powell who guided the Blitzboks to retaining their series title picked up the men’s coach of the series award and paid tribute to his victorious team: “The mental focus and composure they showed was fantastic, all credit to the boys for believing in their success.
“We had everything to play for and the team did an incredible job, not just today but over the whole season. I also want to congratulate Fiji on an amazing season, they were phenomenal.”
DHL Impact Player
The race to be named DHL Impact Player of the Year in both the men’s and women’s series went right down to the final matches. In total 16 players from 12 nations won tournament awards during this season’s series.
New Zealand’s Michaela Blyde was delighted to win the women’s award: “This is pretty special. I’m shocked and truly grateful. I put this down to my teammates who create the opportunities for me and I thank them.”
Justin Douglas of Canada won the men’s award which credits players for their all-round game including factors such as number of tackles, carries, line breaks and offloads as well as tries and points scored.
Your women's HSBC Dream Team for 2018:— World Rugby Sevens (@WorldRugby7s) June 10, 2018
Portia Woodman - @blackferns
Emma Tonegato -@aussie7s
Montserrat Amédée - @FFRugby
Evania Pelite - @aussie7s
Michaela Blyde - @blackferns
Patricia Garcia - @ferugby
Baizat Khamidova - @russiarugby pic.twitter.com/IGSBc1WG2n
HSBC Dream Team
The men’s and women’s HSBC Dream Team takes into consideration players’ performances across the season and previous nominations in the individual tournament dream teams.
Series champions Australia have two players in the women’s HSBC Dream Team in Evania Pelite and Emma Tonegato, while runners-up New Zealand have two in flyers Portia Woodman and Michaela Blyde.
Russia’s Baizat Khamidova, Spain’s Patricia García and France’s Montserrat Amédée complete the line-up.
Your men's HSBC Dream Team for 2018:— World Rugby Sevens (@WorldRugby7s) June 10, 2018
Kalione Nasoko - @fijirugby
Dylan Sage -@Blitzboks
Oscar Ouma - @KenyaSevens
Jerry Tuwai - @fijirugby
Amenoni Nasilasila - @fijirugby
Ben O'Donnell - @aussie7s
Eroni Sau - @fijirugby #HSBC7sAwards pic.twitter.com/JvOJJzjS1f
The men’s HSBC Dream Team features four players from series runners-up Fiji, who won five of the ten rounds.
The Fijians included are Kalione Nasoko, captain Jerry Tuwai, series second top point scorer Amenoni Nasilasila and Rookie of the Year Sau. They are joined by Kenya’s Oscar Ouma, Australia’s Ben O’Donnell and Dylan Sage from series champions South Africa.
Attention now turns to the Rugby World Cup Sevens 2018 in San Francisco from 20-22 July, where 24 men’s and 16 women’s teams will battle it out to become world champions over three days of exciting action. Over 72,000 tickets have already been sold and further details can be obtained HERE.
The 2018-19 HSBC World Rugby Women’s Sevens Series kicks off with a new addition to the series, the HSBC USA Women’s Sevens at Glendale, Colorado on 20-21 October 2018. The full schedules for the 2018-19 series will be announced soon.
World Rugby Chairman Bill Beaumont said: “It has been another tremendous year for the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series, which continues to go from strength to strength.
“I hugely admire the skill and physicality of rugby sevens and thank the players for their outstanding commitment which makes the series such a success. It is great to see the series capturing the imagination on and off the field with year-on-year increases in attendances, broadcast and fan-engagement figures, and that is a great testament to the players, coaches, host unions and everyone involved with the events.
“Rugby sevens took a quantum leap when it joined the Olympic programme in 2016 and now we look forward to a Rugby World Cup Sevens in San Francisco in just 40 days time in an iconic city and a market with great potential. It promises to be a thrilling and spectacular event.”