A huge seven months of Sevens Rugby is set to kick off this weekend with the opening leg of the HSBC Sevens World Series (SWS) in Dubai.
The Dubai 7s is followed by World Series legs in Cape Town, Sydney, Hamilton, Las Vegas, Vancouver and Hong Kong followed by a short break for the Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast from April 13-15.
The World Series then resumes in Singapore at the end of April before finishing with legs in Paris and London in June. Teams then have a month to prepare before the season climax – the Rugby World Cup Sevens in San Francisco in July.
Teams have been limbering up in various warm-up tournaments across the globe – the Oktoberfest 7s in Munich and the Silicon Valley 7s in San Francisco – putting out squads of varying strengths.
But in Dubai nations must finally show their hands and reveal what they believe are their strongest line-ups – at least for the start of the season.
The real surprise packets may be Australia. Coach Andy Friend has been re-building his squad over the last 18-months and it looks as if some of the players he has been bringing through are set to have breakthrough years, as shown by their trifecta of warm-up tournament triumphs.
It’s a fresh-faced team. Take out the veterans Ed Jenkins (34) and James Stannard (31) and the average age of the side is just 23 with two players, Tim Anstee and Simon Kennewell, barely 20.
Even more promising for the Aussies is that the bullocking Anstee (1.93m, 93kg) and the powerhouse Kennewell (1.89m, 95kg) are developing into two of the most damaging runners on the world circuit – akin to the Ioane brothers from New Zealand.
Anstee put the Sevens world on notice when he ran in three tries in as many minutes against Scotland on Day One of the Sydney Sevens tournament in February, while Kennewell has been equally impressive scoring 17 tries in just 49 matches.
Friend is quietly confident that his chargers will do the business in Dubai.
“We’ve learned how to win, and done it in a variety of ways,” he said of their successes in Munich, Silicon Valley and the Central Coast.
“So we’ve got great confidence in our own ability and have to maintain that.”
The reigning World Series and Dubai champions, South Africa, have gone totally in the other direction naming the most experienced squad in their history, with five players having played more World Series matches than the Australian squad combined.
Springbok Sevens coach, Neil Powell, has welcomed back Blitzbokke regulars Kyle Brown, Kwagga Smith, Justin Geduld and Seabelo Senatla to his squad which includes three former World Rugby Players of the Year (Cecil Africa, Werner Kok and Senatla) and a 2017 nominee for the award, pace-man Rosko Specman.
New Zealand, under new coach Clark Laidlaw, are playing catch-up and go into the new season without the legendary DJ Forbes and Sherwin Stowers.
They will be heavily dependent on co-captains 31-year-old Tim Mikkelson and the perennially injured Scott Curry.
The All Blacks Sevens have now set up their permanent home in Tauranga but looking at their squad it is light on the quality of previous line-ups and they may take a while to gel.
The last time crowd favourites England won the Dubai 7s was 2011 but the 2016-17 Series runners-up will again be competitive this year with plenty of stars in Simon Amor’s squad including captain Tom Mitchell, flyer Dan Norton and the hardworking James Rodwell. But they will greatly miss injured danger-man Dan Bibby.
Last season saw five different tournament winners – South Africa (5), England (2) and Fiji, Scotland and Canada one each.
London winners Scotland are taking great strides in both the 15-man and Sevens game but it’s hard to see them going all the way in Dubai and last season’s other surprise packet, Canada, will be quarter-finalists at best.
Which just leaves the Olympic gold medallists, the Flying Fijians. They have not been the same since Ben Ryan departed and stories of them relying on the charity of local club Jebel Ali Dragons to prepare for the tournament do not instill great faith.
They are captained by 2017 Sevens Player of the Year nominee Jerry Tuwai, one of the best players in the Series, but he is just one of a squad of 12 who will do well to repeat their final appearance of last year.
It all adds up to a tantalising, and no-doubt unpredictable, start to this year’s Series but don’t be surprised if it’s the young Australians standing on the steps of The Sevens come late Saturday night.
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