Round Four of the 2016-17 HSBC Sevens World Series is here! Sydney, Australia is the venue and things will have a lot more life to them in the stands than they did last week in Wellington! The action on the field promises to be just as hot. Let's take a peek at this weekend's pools:
POOL A: South Africa, England, Kenya, Japan
South Africa have won two of the three Cup titles this season, only losing at home to England. Rematch! So, that's the beauty of the sevens schedule. It's the last tourney for Seabelo Senatla (180 this season with the Blitzboks before he heads to the Stormers for Super Rugby, so they'll be looking to take full advantage and build as big a standings gap as possible.
The South Africans are quite versatile but England and Kenya have both shown they can match up with the physicality the Blitzboks bring. England's strong coaching and tactical play is a consistent threat and perhaps a differentiator in a tight contest. Kenya has shown this ability too but turnovers and lack of flow occasionally plague their game. If Kenya hangs onto the pill and they get on the front foot, they can certainly challenge to progress here as well.
POOL B: Fiji, France, Wales, Samoa
Fiji are still the Olympic Champions as well as the two-time defending World Series Champs but find themselves looking up at South Africa on the ladder. A twelve point gap greets them as they hit Sydney. However, the matchups favor them in pool play as there's a clear gap between Fiji and the other squads here. Samisoni Viriviri is the 13th man on the Fijian roster this weekend and Nacanieli Labalaba enters in the number four jersey.
France did just enough to earn a quarterfinal berth in Wellington, drawing with the Americans and comfortably defeating Samoa, 28-5. However, they were no match for the Blitzboks in the quarters (45-0). The French have a smart side, with a lot of tactical guile. They'll need all of that and to slow down the game to upset Fiji. They did run the Fijians close in Cape Town, losing 28-19, so there's some hope there.
Wales will be looking to get back in touch with the Cup Quarters after being handled by Canada 28-5 and by Scotland 31-7 last week in the pool stages. They looked like a completely different team than we'd seen in the first two stages of the Series. Disconnected, frustrated and without many answers in defense. A brief respite with a win over PNG on day two was quelled by the Aussies in the Challenge Trophy Semis, 24-10.
Samoa looked a bit tentative last weekend and you could certainly expect some growing pains with a new coach taking over. Sir Gordon will need time to put his stamp on Samoan 7's but the track record speaks for itself. At the moment, Samoa sits eight points clear of Japan in the relegation race. To build on that lead, they'll need more offensive consistency. They have threats like Samoa Toloa (75 tries/23 events) and Ed Fidow (20 tries/8 events) so the potential is there.
POOL C: Scotland, New Zealand, Australia, Papua New Guinea
Scotland racked up a bronze medal finish in Wellington and sit fourth on the ladder as Sydney dawns. In past years, Scotland would never be looked at as a favorite to win a pool with a New Zealand side in it but that's well within the realm of possibilities now. This side is disciplined and they play their game, steadily grinding opponents down. The clock always seems to run faster when you're playing the Scots and they present quite the challenge. Gregor Hunter dons the number two jersey and will make his World Series debut for Scotland.
New Zealand have gone through a bit of a rebirth with a new staff and new ways taking hold in the program. D.J. Forbes looked relieved during one of the post-match interviews talking about the new freedoms they found under Clark Laidlaw. New players keep making their way into the squad as well. Vilimoni Koroi impressed last weekend and Trael Joass and Andrew Knewstubb will make their debuts in Sydney.
Of course, what fun would playing in Sydney be without a Aussie-Kiwi matchup? We've got one and it's not the same Australia side that battled the All Black 7's in last year's thrilling final. Three of the starting 12 will make their debut and five more have three events of experience or less. Henry Hutchison (36 tries/10 events) will be their main strike threat but he'll need help if the Aussies are to enter the Cup Quarters.
PNG are back again for a second weekend with the core nations. They struggled without possession last weekend and didn't have much possession. For things to improve, the defensive communication has to improve and be used much less often!
POOL D: Canada, Argentina, USA, Russia
Canada broke through in Wellington, smashing their way through pool play and into the semis. They looked young at heart doing so, playing with a lot of joy and confidence. Cheers to Coach McGrath and the players for embracing the system and their talents to get such a quick improvement. They have quite the opportunity to do it again in Sydney. Canada beat the Argentines in last week's Cup Quarters and the Americans are struggling with consistency. If the improvements have stuck, they have a great chance to make another deep run!
Argentina's sevens side is often overshadowed by their 15's counterparts and to the international popularity of Los Jaguares as well. (Side note: can anyone get me one of those orange Jaguares jerseys, please? Tweet at Rugby_Global ! ) However, this is a well coached, strong, consistent program that shows up every match with a chance to win. They deserve a lot more credit than they get. They seem to have a slight edge over the US and were able to help eliminate them from the Cup Quarters in Rio. Can their less experienced 2017 roster repeat the feat in Sydney? Last weekend was Argentina's first trip to the Cup Quarters in the 2016-17 World Series. Expect a pair of super close games against their North American counterparts.
Given the rough ride the US had last weekend, look out for a rebound in Sydney! One more point against France would have gotten them through to the quarterfinals but a weak first half left them battling to a draw which severely impacted their chances to progress. Looking at the bright side, Perry Baker has developed into one of the finest players on tour and with physical threats like Danny Barrett and Andrew Durutalo, the US can play any which way you like.
Russia did win a match in the Challenge Trophy round, knocking off Japan before losing the 13th place battle to Samoa, 19-12. They look lost at times offensively and while their women's side has strike runners abound, the men's side is lacking in that area. This team has quite a strong culture going and they really add something special to the fabric of the tour. At current pace, they are favored to stay, sitting five points ahead of Japan. They'll look to build on that on day two.
QUARTERS & BEYOND:
Let's take South Africa to win. As long as Senatla's on this team, I think they're head and shoulders best, even above Fiji. I'll take SA, England, Fiji, Wales, Scotland, NZ, USA and Canada as my eight quarterfinalists and I'll snag Argentina to win the Challenge Cup Trophy!