This weekend brings another leg of the HSBC Sevens World Series and many high-profile names are staking their reputations on bringing home Olympic Gold
By Alex Shaw
The HSBC Sevens World Series sets up camp in Wellington this weekend and the leg will play host to more than its fair share of superstars.
As sevens teams from around the world prepare for the sport’s Olympic bow in Rio de Janeiro this year, a number of stars from the 15-a-side format are trying their luck in the World Series, in an attempt to have a gold medal dangling around their neck this summer.
We take a look at some of the players ready to make the most of the spotlight and push forward their claims for Olympic inclusion.
Sonny Bill Williams, New Zealand
Where else do you start but with the superstar, two-time World Cup-winner?
Having enjoyed success in both league and union, as well as donning the gloves in an intermittent heavyweight boxing career, there’s every reason to believe that sporting polymath, Williams, will take to sevens. The centre thrived in the 15-a-side format, with his offloading ability, one-on-one tackles and clever lines of running.
Those elements of his game will be lauded in the shortened format and though his understanding of defensive positioning may take time to develop, he should generate excitement anytime he gets his mitts on the ball this weekend.
Rieko Ioane, New Zealand
Sticking with the hosts, Ioane is a man who shot to prominence on this leg of the World Series last year. He dazzled the watching world as a then 17-year-old, ghosting through defences for six tries at the event.
With another year of development and his older brother Akira at his side, Ioane returns to the Cake Tin, intent on helping New Zealand to a third-successive title in Wellington. Local boy and Hurricanes star Ardie Savea joins the Ioane brothers and Williams in a New Zealand team which promises fireworks.
Cheslin Kolbe, South Africa
Two of the Blitzbokke’s most influential players, Kyle Brown and Cecil Afrika, have been ruled out of this leg due to injury and South Africa will need Kolbe to step up and fill the void. The elusive full-back has plenty of experience in sevens, having starred for South Africa in the World Series as a teenager.
Kolbe thrives in space where he can use his speed and footwork, rather than his strength, to beat players and he should find plenty of that in Wellington. Joining Kolbe this weekend will be Springboks Francois Hougaard and Juan de Jongh.
Savenaca Rawaca, Fiji
The Saracens-bound wing may be setting the Aviva Premiership alight next season but, until then, he’s spearheading the Flying Fijians’ twin goals of World Series and Olympic success. His 10 tries so far tie him for second in the competition’s try table.
The back has one of the best stutter steps you’ll see on a sevens pitch, handles and offloads deftly and when he starts accelerating, he moves through the gears faster than Lewis Hamilton. What separates Rawaca from many of the other exciting attacking players in sevens is that his defence is equally as impressive. He can make game-changing plays with or without the ball.
Jack Wilson, England
The former Saracens and Sharks winger gives England a much-needed playmaker. With Marcus Watson and Mike Ellery moving to Premiership clubs and Dan Norton missing the tournament following the birth of his son, Wilson will be expected to be a source of tries, even on his debut.
Head coach Simon Amor has already praised Wilson’s power and speed and in the open spaces of the sevens arena, physical traits such as that are extremely valuable and can often prove the difference between victory and defeat.
Perry Baker, USA
Baker’s emergence was one of the stories of the World Series last season and he was key in the USA’s first tournament win, when they beat Australia at Twickenham to lift the London Sevens title. A former American Football player, Baker, nicknamed the Pepperami Stick, has the long-legged stride that sevens teams covet and he has quickly adapted to rugby.
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The USA are a genuine threat to lift gold in Rio this year and Baker is vying to be their MVP, offering a dynamic try-scoring threat outside Zack Test, Madison Hughes and the rest of their improving side. Put him opposite Carlin Isles and it becomes a case of opposition teams having to pick their poison.