Preparations for this year’s Olympic Games will ramp up in Hamilton this weekend as the 2019/20 World Sevens Series enters its third round on the men’s side of the draw.
12 of the 16 teams participating at Waikato Stadium on Saturday and Sunday have booked their tickets for Tokyo 2020, making this tournament a vital stopping point on the road to the sport’s pinnacle event in July and August.
Before all of that, though, there remains the World Sevens Series – which is still in its infancy this season – to take care of.
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Two tournaments into the new campaign, and it’s clear who the two early frontrunners are for the series title come May 31.
This weekend’s hosts New Zealand and last round’s hosts South Africa have rocketed their way to the top of the series standings with 41 points apiece after facing off against each other in the finals of the Dubai and Cape Town tournaments last month.
Both sides came away with a winners and runners-up medal to their names to assert their dominance early on, with third-placed France 12 points off the pace.
A quick glance through the squads both nations have put forward for Hamilton, and it’s easy to envisage them again challenging for another Cup title.
Returning to the All Blacks Sevens for the first time this season is electric playmaker Vilimoni Koroi and Chiefs youngster Etene Nanai-Seturo.
The duo is joined in New Zealand’s 13-man side by Sione Molia, who returns from injury to hand head coach Clark Laidlaw arguably his strongest possible squad to field on their home turf.
Alongside them features the likes of veterans Kurt Baker, Dylan Collier, Scott Curry, Sam Dickson, Tim Mikkelson, Regan Ware and Joe Webber, while Hurricanes speedster Salesi Rayasi will look to continue his outstanding form on the circuit.
In the Blitzboks camp, head coach Neil Powell has lost one of the series’ most prolific try-scorer of all-time, Seabelo Senatla, to the Stormers as he eyes a dominant Super Rugby season on the wing.
He’ll be joined at Newlands by midfielder Ruhan Nel, while this season’s top point-scorer Rosko Speckman and Dylan Sage have linked up with the Bulls.
That leaves South Africa with an altered squad to the one that reached back-to-back finals at the end of last year, which will be led by a new captain Stedman Gans.
He takes over from the injured Siviwe Soyizwapi, and will to charge of a side that some may consider depleted, yet still headlines a raft of series stars.
Between Chris Dry, Werner Kok, Branco du Preez, Justin Geduld and Cecil Afrika, the Blitzboks can call upon almost 300 tournaments’ worth of experience while maintaining a youthful, exciting exuberance through Selvyn Davids, Zain Davids and Impi Visser.
Such a contrast of talent throughout both New Zealand and South Africa should again make them serious title contenders this weekend, but their bids for a second Cup crown this season won’t come easily.
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Both nations have been dealt firm challenges in the pool stages, with the All Blacks Sevens drawn alongside the USA in Pool A, and the Blitzboks will have to fight off a determined England outfit in Pool C.
Captained by Madison Hughes, the Eagles have named a virtually full-strength squad for the upcoming weekend.
Two of the fastest men in rugby – Carlin Isles and Perry Baker – will both be on show, as will usual standouts Danny Barrett, Ben Pinkelman and 2019 World Cup representative Martin Iosefo.
As for England, skipper Tom Mitchell is set for his first appearance of the season to bolster his side’s depth of experience and talent alongside fellow stars Dan Bibby, Phil Burgess, Mike Ellery and the series’ all-time leading try-scorer Dan Norton.
Those two pool clashes on day one will go a long way to determining the eventual champion to be crowned on Sunday, as World Rugby introduces a cut-throat new format which will see only the top side of each pool qualify for the Cup competition.
Not only does that mean there will be no Cup quarter-finals, but it means two of either New Zealand, South Africa, England and the USA will suffer a significant blow in their World Series title aspirations.
The same could be said of reining Olympic champions Fiji, who will be sure to face stiff competition from Argentina, Australia and Samoa, who surprised everyone to make the final four in Dubai, in Pool D.
By comparison, France should make easy work of Pool C, although Ireland might prove to be tougher to beat than the lowly Canadian and Spanish sides.
Additionally, a women’s tournament will also be held alongside the men’s draw for the first time on New Zealand soil.
With names such as Michaela Blyde, Kelly Brazier, Theresa Fitzpatrick, Sarah Hirini, Tyla Nathan-Wong, Ruby Tui and Niall Williams in their ranks, the Black Ferns head to Hamilton as the undisputed favourites following their consecutive tournament victories in Dubai and Cape Town.
Olympic champions Australia should provide the New Zealanders with the sternest competition, as per usual, thanks to the presence of captain Sharni Williams, Ellia Green and Emma Tonegato.
As the only other side to have claimed a tournament title this season, it is worth keeping an eye on Australia’s Pool B rivals the United States, who claimed the Glendale title last October, as well.
The women’s tournament will kick-off at 9:30am on Saturday in a Pool C clash between France and Spain, while the men’s tournament gets underway two and a half hours’ later when Ireland takes on Canada.
The womens’ and mens’ finals are scheduled for 8:26pm and 8:56pm on Sunday, respectively.
Men’s pools for Hamilton Sevens
Pool A: New Zealand, Scotland, USA, Wales
Pool B: South Africa, Kenya, England, Japan
Pool C: France, Ireland, Canada, Spain
Pool D: Fiji, Argentina, Australia, Samoa
Women’s pools for Hamilton Sevens
Pool A: New Zealand, Fiji, England, China
Pool B: Australia, USA, Russia, Brazil
Pool C: Canada, France, Spain, Ireland
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