The Sevens World Series has hit the home straight, and there are two fascinating stories unfolding.
We’re guilty sometimes of bigging up this more concise form of rugby union, but, hand on heart, there’s no need for exaggeration this time. With just the Glasgow and London legs to go, the Series has shaped up to be a genuinely thrilling three-horse race.
South Africa lead the way just four points ahead of Fiji who, in turn, have their noses five points in front of New Zealand. South Africa’s lead is based on unrivalled consistency – they haven’t finished outside the top four in any one of these seven rounds, and have taken two cup final wins on the way.
There’s little doubt that Fiji, at their best, are the most talented squad on the circuit. If Ben Ryan can keep his team focused for two more weeks, the big prize could well be in Fijian hands next Sunday. They’ve won three cups already this season.
But don’t ever write off New Zealand! This time last year, Gordon Tietjen’s team entered the final fortnight behind South Africa in the standings, and then two brilliant back-to-back wins secured them their 12th Series, as if it had never been in doubt.
In short, the three big guns are miles ahead of the rest right now – it could go all the way – and that’s refreshing in a sport that has been historically dominated by one country. Guess who?
Surprise! It’s the All Blacks. Their stranglehold on the Sevens tour has been one of the most enduring legacies in sport. Since the inaugural World Series, the Kiwis have won a whopping 12 out of the 15 titles contested. The last non-New Zealand team to win it were Samoa way back in 2010. South Africa and Fiji are the only other two Series winners; mere splashes of colour on an All Black canvas.
Chasing the Olympic dream
The other factor shaping this whole Series is of course the quest for Olympic qualification. The chance to play for a medal at the world’s biggest festival is massive motivation for these Sevens players. South Africa, Fiji and New Zealand are all expected to confirm their Olympic places this weekend, but just below them an almighty battle is going on for that last automatic place.
But you wouldn’t know it. The various squads and their spokespeople have been coy about the motivation of an Olympic Dream – lest they be disappointed? England (who have slipped away from answering any Olympic questions like eels) currently stand nine points ahead of Australia in that coveted fourth spot. And, ain’t this something – England and Australia have now found themselves cozily together in the same pool in Glasgow – which could clearly have a dramatic impact on the contest for fourth place.
England Sevens head coach Simon Amor speaks on his teams performance after they won the Tokyo Sevens.
They say there’s no such thing as a sure thing in Sevens and if the Tokyo event taught us anything, it’s that a team’s fortunes can turn on a penny. The Aussies went into that event with a six-point lead on England, and it looked with three rounds left that an automatic place in Rio was beyond The Red Rose.
On came Scotland, who pulled off a dramatic win over Australia to knock the green and gold out of the main draw. England seized their opportunity and went all the way to the final, where they pulled off a stunning upset over South Africa and added the maximum 22 points to their total. The result: a six-point deficit became a nine-point advantage.
The Series title and Olympic qualification will be the main focus over the next fortnight, but there are plenty of other international stories to stay tuned to. Both the hosts Scotland and the USA have had stellar seasons so far, and will play for their highest ever finishes. The Americans, under new head coach Mike Friday, have been a revelation on the circuit, and are finally living up to their tag of ‘sleeping giants’.
Japan are desperately trying to avoid relegation – in their first season back on tour as a core nation, they are eight points clear of Portugal in 15th spot. And the team that will replace next season’s demoted side, Russia, will no doubt want to show their ability to compete at this level.
It’s going to be exciting!