Sadly, most of the discussion around the Wellington 7's this year is about declining attendance...or whether there will be anyone in attendance at all. Much ink has been devoted to the "Fun police" and the transition to "family friendly" policies but what seems certain is that change is coming for this stop on future World Series tours. With the new Canada Sevens and Singapore Sevens attracting strong numbers, there will be more and more pressure on existing stops to pack the house or face losing their seat at the table.
On we go to a quick look at the pools.
POOL A: Kenya, Argentina, England, Papua New Guinea
Experienced groups from England (317 total events) & Kenya (278) are here with a younger group from Argentina (120) and a rookie group from PNG (3). With England being the reigning champs of our most recent stop in Cape Town, you have to like their chances to advance to the quarters. However, there were only five points difference between the English & the Argentinians in Cape Town (19-14 pool play win for England). So, expect another set of tight games between the three established tour sides here.
Kenya did take a solid step forward in Cape Town, losing to Fiji for 5th place (33-21) in an entertaining game. Their offensive play was much stronger and should be the difference against a tough Pumas side.
PNG does have some excellent talent much like Uganda but with a bit less experience. With all the Twitter discussion about a tier two sevens tour and building up that level of competition, PNG would be a great fan draw anywhere they turn up.
POOL B: South Africa, Fiji, Japan, Australia
On apperances, South Africa and Fiji are the heavy favorites to go through here. Japan have sent another young, developing squad. Also, the Aussies have had their struggles this season, especially in Cape Town coming in 12th. However, there are five Fijian players with two events or fewer on the World Series on the 13-man squad as new Head Coach Gareth Baber gives some of the up & coming players who recently toured South America an opportunity. Meanwhile, the Blitzboks will want to convert the final appearances of Seabelo Senatla this season into Cup wins before he jets off to Super Rugby.
POOL C: USA, France, Samoa, New Zealand
This pool should be the most muddled of the weekend. The obvious storyline involves Sir Gordon Tietjens coming back to New Zealand as Head Coach of Samoa but the USA & France have solid squads as well and any of the four could win the pool.
New Zealand returns a bunch of familiar names such as Sherwin Stowers, D.J. Forbes and Tim Mikkelson but are developing a new identity as well. A jump from 8th place in Dubai to third in Cape Town speaks well for that transition so far. Meanwhile, Samoa have only eight Series points to show for the season but the X factor of Coach Tietjens mixed in with strike threats like Samoa Toloa & Lafaele Vaa gives the Samoans an excellent opportunity to improve.
The USA has had their own set of struggles to deal with including a $1 million dollar budget shortfall but stars like Perry Baker, Carlin Isles and Danny Barrett are hard to find and the US has them in spades. A tough early loss to Scotland (14-5) in Dubai left them out of the quarters but they rebounded with a pivotal 19-0 early win over Australia. The first match and consistency through the pool stage will be a focus for them.
France has a strong veteran squad. They and England are the only two sides bringing over 300 World Series appearances with them to New Zealand. But besides Terry Bouhraoua, where are the gamebreakers? Julien Candelon is 36 and the next sevens winger has yet to break through in this side. They'll rely on possession, patience and strong decision making to push them along this season.
POOL D: Scotland, Canada, Wales, Russia
Scotland won their first ever tourney in London to end last season on the Series and now, they can rightly be considered the strongest side in many a pool combination. They sit fourth on the current World Series standings and are looking to expand on their strong run of form. Gavin Lowe is back in the side after missing Cape Town via injury and star Mark Robertson will make his 50th appearance on the Series.
Canada has looked much stronger at times under new Head Coach Damian McGrath but had yet to convert that into consistency or tour points with just six to show so far. Issac Kaay debuts for Canada in the number two jersey but the roster is mostly unchanged, featuring vets John Moonlight, Nathan Hirayama & Harry Jones. Their challenge will be to continue to reduce their error rate against a pair of squads who have done just that in Scotland and Wales this season.
Wales are 6th on tour this season so far including a fourth place finish in Dubai. While they may have been underrated early on, they'll have more attention on them now after two strong appearances. The Russians only scored 17 points in pool play in Cape Town, all against the US but showed up on day two, beating Samoa and running France close in the Challenge Trophy Semis (12-17).
Quarters & Beyond:
My QF teams are: South Africa, Fiji, USA, New Zealand, Wales, Scotland, Kenya and England. South Africa is my favorite to win despite a possible tough draw versus the US in the quarters.
by Dan Mason - @Rugby_Global