No northern hemisphere team has won the global sevens competition, but Simon Amor's men are riding high as they go into this weekend's third leg of the series
It’s early days but England have made the brightest of starts in their bid to win the HSBC Sevens World Series for the first time. After winning bronze in Dubai and gold in Cape Town, Simon Amor’s team now tackle the third leg in Wellington, where they have an eight-year track record of top-four finishes.
“We have traditionally done well in this tournament and have good momentum from December,” said coach Amor. “But everyone understands there are big improvements that we must make in certain areas. The rest of the world will also have learned a lot from Dubai and Cape Town, so we need to keep taking steps forward and be increasingly smarter with our decision-making and how we play the game.”
England, who sit second in the table, two points behind South Africa, have named an unchanged squad that includes eight of the GB squad that bagged silver in the Rio Olympics. Dan Norton is joint top try-scorer for the series with 15.
Amor added: “There is only a short turnaround between the remaining tournaments and jet-lag becomes a significant factor at this stage in the season. We’ve had the last block where there was a chance to go hard on fitness, so it was great to see so many of the guys getting personal bests in their scores over the Christmas period.
“Those foundations are now in place, not just for the upcoming tournaments but hopefully to carry us through the series.”
Former New Zealand Sevens captain Karl Te Nana, now a media commentator on the circuit, sees England as a force to be reckoned with.
“Their balance between using their big men to good effect and their playmakers is what makes them dangerous. You have Dan Bibby and Tom Mitchell pulling the strings in the backs and then the new-found confidence of Dan Norton, which creates a very strong team across the park.
“When it all clicks it’s devastating and very hard to defend against. I’m not surprised with their results in the first two rounds and the experience gained by the Team Great Britain players at Rio is something the side is benefiting from.”
New Zealand may prove the biggest obstacle this weekend. England beat them 26-12 in Dubai but lost 33-7 to them in Cape Town after yellow cards to Dan Bibby and James Rodwell.
The Kiwis, under Scott Waldrom and Tomasi Cama’s management for the season until Clark Laidlaw takes the reins on 1 June, are chasing their fourth successive Wellington triumph and they have won nine of the 18 titles there.
They include four new caps following the recent National Sevens but an experienced core remains, with Scott Curry the captain and DJ Forbes preparing for his 82nd World Series tournament.
South Africa have injuries to contend with. Kyle Brown ruptured his ACL in Cape Town that has ended his season while Cecil Afrika damaged a knee in training, so Zain Davids, a junior Springbok star in 2016, and speedster Siviwe Soyizwapi deputise.
“We have lost over 100 tournaments’ worth of experience with Kyle and Cecil out of action,” said coach Neil Powell.
An emotional driver for the series leaders will be the desire to give Seabelo Senatla the send-off he deserves. The World Rugby Sevens Player of the Year missed the 19-17 final defeat to England with a quadriceps muscle injury but is fit to play in his final two World Series tournaments – Sydney follows next weekend – before leaving for Super Rugby. He is joining the Stormers.
A thrilling sight on the series for so many years, the Blitzbok flyer is chasing the all-time South Africa try-scoring record. He has 172, seven behind Fabian Juries.
“The record is in the back of my mind,” Senatla admitted, “but I’m not stressing about it.”
South Africa’s clinical efficiency was evident in their home tournament. In the quarter-final, Wales controlled the ball for almost the whole of the first half but one loose offload, one breakdown error, one injured player and bang, the Blitzbok led 19-0 (it finished 33-0).
World Series top six after two legs
1. South Africa 41 points
2. England 39
3. Fiji 32
4. = Scotland, New Zealand 27
6. Wales 25
Wales, however, have been encouraged by their efforts. Cardiff Blues’ James Botham, grandson of cricket legend Ian, and the Dragons’ Elliot Frewen come into a squad that is punching above its weight, according to coach Gareth Williams.
“We’ve very much set ourselves long-term goals,” he said, “but to start the way we did with semi- and quarter-final finishes in Dubai and Cape Town was way ahead of expectations when you consider how young this group is.”
While Wales sit a creditable sixth in the table, Scotland are faring even better – they are level with New Zealand on 27 points.
Gavin Lowe is recalled having missed Cape Town through injury while GB silver medallist Mark Robertson will compete in his 50th World Series tournament. Edinburgh’s Glenn Bryce is included for the first time this season and Nyle Godsmark also returns following impressive performances in the BT Premiership with Melrose.
Scotland have been drawn as top seeds in Pool D and coach Calum MacRae said: “We take a lot of confidence from how we’ve opened the series. However, our feet remain firmly on the ground.”
Elsewhere, Collins Injera, the all-time record try-scorer in the series with 235, returns to the Kenya team after being dropped because of a pay dispute with his union. Australia refresh their squad after a glut of injuries that include Ed Jenkins (shoulder), Jesse Parahi (jaw), John Porch (ankle), Tom Lucas (knee) and long-term absentee Lewis Holland (Achilles).
And Fiji, the reigning series and Olympic champions now under new coach Gareth Baber, bring in five of the Fijian Barbarians team that won the recent Sudamerica Rugby Sevens Series in South America.
Finally, it’s welcome back Sir Gordon Tietjens, who belatedly takes charge of Samoa after the NZRU somewhat pettily prevented him starting the series with his new team because of contractual small print.
“It’s a big challenge being back in Wellington and I feel really energised for it,” said Tietjens, who over 22 years led New Zealand to 12 series titles, four Commonwealth Games gold medals and two Sevens World Cup crowns.
“If (Samoa) make shifts in two areas, in nutrition and fitness, they will certainly cut it in the game. They know how to play the game. Bringing them to New Zealand, we’ve been here for three weeks, is to learn all about what high performance is.
“In Samoa they understand the game, the physicality of it is never questioned, but it’s the speed and intensity of the game that they have got to get used to, to compete in the World Series.”
New Zealand sevens great Eric Rush has this week questioned the validity of Wellington as a host venue because of falling spectator numbers, but the interest will be sky-high when the Kiwis play their first game – Tietjens and Samoa are the opposition.
Wellington Sevens pools
Pool A: England, Kenya, Argentina, PNG.
Pool B: South Africa, Fiji, Australia, Japan.
Pool C: New Zealand, USA, France, Samoa.
Pool D: Scotland, Wales, Russia, Canada.
* TV coverage of the Wellington Sevens starts from 9.50pm GMT on Friday 27 January on Sky Sports 2.