The pieces are slotting together nicely for Fiji coach Ben Ryan, who welcomes an influx of overseas-based players for this weekend's penultimate series tournament in Paris
Softer toilet paper and being allowed to eat sausages were two of the treats sampled this week by the Fiji squad, who stayed at the deluxe Lensbury hotel in Teddington prior to heading for Paris.
It was not their usual standard of accommodation but then this is not a usual year. Fiji may be on the brink of a second successive HSBC Sevens World Series title but the bigger picture is the Rio Olympics, hence the Government funding that is providing a bit of extra comfort for the world’s best sevens team.
Best? The table tells the story, Fiji sitting eight points clear in the series after a potentially decisive Asian leg when only Kenya’s heroics in the Singapore final prevented them banking maximum points.
“It’s been fascinating this year,” says Fiji coach Ben Ryan. “Every team would probably say they’d happily come bottom of the series if they won the gold medal in Rio. But as reigning world champions we’re desperate to go back to back.
“And our goal at the beginning of the year was to go to Rio as No 1 seeds. The seedings are done over two seasons, based on World Series points, and we’re currently 18 clear of South Africa in that process. So barring a disaster we’ll be seeded one in Rio.”
Just as Clive Woodward piled on the pressure for England’s 2003 Grand Slam match ahead of that year’s World Cup, so Ryan used Hong Kong as a dress rehearsal for Rio.
“We’ve put a focus on the series because it’s what you want going into a big competition. We put a big focus on Hong Kong. We told the players, ‘We’ll get you to a mini peak from a fitness point of view, we’ll apply pressure to you, we’ll say, ‘We have to win this tournament’, and we’ll see how you get on.”
They got on rather well of course, as they invariably do in three-day tournaments especially, and in taking the title they demonstrated their remarkable powers of recovery as Saracens signing Savenaca Rawaca scored in the final seconds to rescue them in the quarter-final against Kenya.
Their knockout wins against Australia and South Africa in Singapore were similarly dramatic. But the fact Kenya, progressing from the easier half of the draw, then caned them 30-7 in the final was a reminder that nothing comes easy in a sevens world of ever-decreasing margins.
In the inaugural Paris Sevens of 2000, New Zealand beat South Africa 69-10 in the final, a thrashing that would be unthinkable nowadays against any team on the circuit.
France has only hosted three series events since, in Bordeaux (2004) and Paris (2005 and 2006), and Ryan is hoping the public gets behind the new venue.
“European rugby’s a long way behind southern hemisphere sevens as far as structure and season goes, and the respect it’s held in. So it’s good to have a tournament on mainland Europe again,” says the Londoner, who has never taken a side to France’s capital having started with England in 2007.
“Every other new tournament, Vancouver, Singapore, Cape Town and Sydney, has smashed it. Let’s hope Paris continues that and has a bumper crowd. It’s a hard ask given all the stuff (terrorist attacks) that’s happened recently, and it’s a bank holiday in France as well and it’s the European Cup final with (Paris team) Racing in it.”
The rotation and resting of players that has marked the series will continue for the final two tournaments, London (21-22 May) wrapping up proceedings after the three-day Parisian showcase at Stade Jean-Bouin. England, for example, are resting Tom Mitchell, Dan Norton and Phil Burgess as they attempt to improve on a lowly eighth place. Their hopes are massively weakened by the dislocated knee injury to James Rodwell that prevents him playing in a 70th successive World Series event.
Second-placed South Africa include Worcester’s Francois Hougaard among four changes, with Justin Geduld, probably the best goalkicker in the series, not being risked after a hamstring niggle in training.
New Zealand (third) have Reiko and Akira Ioane back after their starring roles in Wellington and Sydney, Nick Cummins returns for Australia (fourth), and NFL star Nate Ebner, who bagged his first series tries against Portugal in Singapore, continues his Rio quest for fifth-placed USA.
Fiji’s European-based stars haven’t been available until now and, having promised them an opportunity to compete for an Olympics place, Ryan admits he’s concerned about disrupting a squad that’s been functioning so well.
“It’s not a bad thing that I have to keep the door open for some of our overseas players. And when I say that, I’m a little bit worried about how they’re going to perform, first time in the series.
“But we’re talking about potentially the best winger in Europe in Josua Tuisova (Toulon), Leone Nakarawa (Glasgow), who was a star in the Rugby World Cup, Waisea Nayacalevu, who was Player of the Year for Stade Français, and Samisoni Viriviri (Montpellier), who was World Sevens Player of the Year two years ago. And these are guys I’m a little bit worried whether they’ll be up to standard! Perhaps I’m worrying about something I shouldn’t.”
If they thrive, the new players will go into a 24-strong training squad for the Olympics announced straight after London. The players will have two weeks off before the hard work resumes, Ryan aiming to create a one-to-one battle for each of the 12 Rio places that must be named by mid-July, to comply with IOC regulations.
There is time for the seedings to change but as things stand, Fiji are set to face USA, Argentina and hosts Brazil in their pool in Rio. South Africa and Australia would have to contend with in-form Kenya and core-team qualifiers Japan, while Great Britain would tackle New Zealand, France and the repêchage qualifier – probably Samoa – in the third pool.
The top two in each pool, plus the best two third-placed teams, advance to the quarter-finals and no one, not even Fiji, can take anything for granted.
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