POOL A: New Zealand, Canada, France, Papua New Guinea
Welcome to the Women's Sevens Series, Papua New Guinea! How about that draw for a step up to the international stage?
New Zealand dominated in Dubai on the way to a Cup title and perhaps got their best challenge not from Australia in the Final but from Fiji in the pool stages. Michaela Blyde was sensational, scoring ten tries on the tourney and her emergence as a dominant scoring force alongside Portia Woodman and Kelly Brazier will keep opposing coaches up at night. Until proven otherwise, this is the best squad on tour.
If you were to construct a group to beat New Zealand, they'd need to have veteran poise and experience, a flyer or two and the ability to steal the ball come kickoff time. Check, check and check for Canada. Jen Kish is back in the lineup and she's as good as there is in the air in the game of rugby. Ghislaine Landry can score with the best of them. And the core group here, led by Coach Tait, has the second most experience in games played this weekend with 136 (just ahead of NZ and just behind Australia). The Olympic Bronze medalists will have a lot to say about the outcome this weekend.
Meanwhile, France will have their hands full with all the talent in this pool. Their side struggled offensively against the tour's top guns in Dubai, losing by a combined 81-0 to Australia and New Zealand. However, they remained competitive elsewhere and I suspect this profile will hold this weekend as this French team grows and gets more experience.
PNG has a star of their own on hand in #6 Joanne Lagona....look out for her this weekend. Even the mighty Black Ferns will have their difficulties with her. Lagona isn't just a flyer with a tremendous step and elusiveness, she sets up a lot of opportunities for her teammates. And her teammate have shown they won't stand back, expect support lines in abundance. A win may be tough to come by in pool play but don't be shocked if this team steals one on day two.
POOL B: Australia, Fiji, Brazil, Ireland
Preparations for the Aussies were clearly impacted by the news that the Cup Quarterfinals would be moved out of the main stadium onto a small practice field (capacity: 1,000) next to the main stadium in Sydney. The official explanation from the administrators at the ARU was that of contractual obligation. They signed the men's deal first, all conflicts bow to the terms of the contract requiring main stadium time and oh well. Leaving aside the basic concept of well, equality here for a minute....these ladies WON THE GOLD MEDAL AT THE FRICKING OLYMPICS!!! An hour of main stadium time in the morning couldn't be freed up for them and the Cup quarterfinalists in their home tourney??
Anyway, the Aussies have something to prove after being dusted 17-7 by the Black Ferns in the Dubai Cup Final. And beyond Fiji, they have a much easier route back to the final through pool play. Their roster carries the usual slate of stars in playmaker Charlotte Caslick, Emilee Cherry, Sharni Williams, Chloe Dalton and flyer Ellia Green.
Meanwhile, Fiji keeps adding to the blueprint of how to develop a women's sevens squad. They continue to get better and better and better. They may be the most challenging side to face on tour as they can beat you any way there is and do a wonderful job of shifting on the fly and supporting the ball carrier. Asinate Savu leads the team with 32 tour tries but they play so well together that any of the seven are likely to beat you as they continue to hold the ball.
Ireland managed to have some success against Fiji in Dubai, earning a 17-17 draw and ending the weekend as the Challenge Trophy holders via a 14-12 win over Spain. This Irish side had offensive issues all last season but took a big step forward in this area in Dubai, putting up 28 points on the USA on day two and looking much more fluid with ball in hand.
Brazil finished in last place in Dubai after a strong start where they narrowly lost to Canada, 26-19. It was one of those weekends where possession was hard to come by but they did some nice things when they had the pill. As usual, it's a battle for the ball in sevens and that seven minutes on the clock goes by fast each half, especially when you're defending a ton. This team is capable of winning two games in pool play, as is Ireland but each will have to dominate possession to achieve that goal.
POOL C: England, Spain, Russia, USA
What a mess Pool C is. England is a different side now, as six of the twelve spots are filled by players with fewer than two tour events played. Speedy winger Rachael Woosey (England U20/U18) and Chantelle Miell (University of Bath, England U20) make their debuts this weekend in Sydney. However, the likes of Joanne Watmore, Heather Fisher, Natasha Brennan and Alice Richardson are still here and that's enough to see England as a slight favorite in pool.
Russia is without Nadezda Kudinova in Sydney but they have to like their chances to win Pool C as well. They have a number of attacking threats led by veteran Baizat Khamidova (63 tries in 15 events). Elena Zdrokova (19 tries in 5 events) is fast making a name for herself as well while Marina Petrova and Alena Mikhaltsova do quite well with ball in hand as well. With that kind of attacking diversity, the Russians are a major threat to anyone.
The USA had a inconsistent weekend in Dubai, beating Russia and giving another strong challenge to the Aussies while allowing a flood of points to South Africa (26-7) and Ireland (28-5). The Eagles will have to step it up and be at their best every time out. If they are, they could win the pool. If they're not, their core status could potentially be at stake down the line. That's how fine the line is now on tour.
Spain has a case to make of their own here in Pool C. This is a tough group who earned the last ticket to the Olympics through qualifying and the strength they displayed there is exactly what they'll need in Sydney. It's a team with good balance that works well together. Patricia Garcia is their best known threat (28 tries in 17 events) but the Spanish Federation has built a pretty strong machine here and you shouldn't be surprised if they qualify for the quarters.
Quarters & Beyond:
Australia, Canada and New Zealand are the only automatics this weekend. I like Russia's chances to win Pool C in an exceptionally tough group. For the other four quarterfinalists, I'll take Fiji, England, Ireland and the US to edge Spain out. That fourth and final quarter between the winner of Pool C and the second place team in Pool A (Russia/England v Canada?) looks like an amazing game as well.
For an overall winner, I'm taking the Black Ferns in a shootout win over Australia, 35-31.