The former England Sevens captain expects fireworks at the Commonwealth Games


Rob Vickerman: Commonwealth Games players to watch

You can call it ‘Covid Memory’ but, in my mind, the Olympics doesn’t seem too long ago. And perhaps the most dramatic action and gripping sporting stories in Tokyo were on the sevens field. Okay, I’m biased, but the wider Olympic broadcasting teams and media were astounded at the athleticism, resilience and ferocity of the game’s shortened version.

I’m already excited at the prospect of the sevens grabbing the attention again, this time at the Commonwealth Games sevens. Sixteen men’s and eight women’s teams will play across three days, 29 to 31 July.

Commonwealth Games players to watch – Men

In the men’s event, Fiji are synonymous with entertaining. They also have two Olympic golds. However, since Tokyo, there’s been almost a complete overhaul of their squad, with England stalwart Ben Gollings becoming the third Brit to lead them after Messrs Ryan and Baber.

You could pit around 20 Fijian teams into a World Series event and they would have a good go at winning it, but the man-mountain and one-man wrecking ball Elia Canakaivata leads the charge as part of the (unofficial) biggest sevens team ever. One of five players who are 6ft 4in or taller, and weighing more than 105kg, he breaks the mould (and often the spirit of his opponents) in sevens.

Commonwealth Games players to watch

Caleb Tangitau attacks for New Zealand (Getty Images)

Australia have had an incredible resurgence, winning the London Sevens in May – their first trophy since 2018. Their star find has been Corey Toole, a relative unknown until Dubai last year. Since then, the Brumbies graduate has been scintillating. With an unorthodox yet mesmerising running style and insatiable work-rate, he’s averaged almost a try a game across the season. Alongside Dietrich Roache, another gem, they have every chance of matching their gold shirts with the equivalent medal.

New Zealand had won every single Commonwealth Games sevens match until losing to South Africa in Glasgow in 2014 but reclaimed gold in 2018. Caleb Tangitau has burst onto the stage with all the prerequisites – pace, power and size – and, at just 19, he’ll hopefully follow in the footsteps of many great All Blacks wings to have played sevens.

Commonwealth Games players to watch – Women

The women’s tournament takes place for only the second time having been introduced in 2018 and features eight teams competing at Coventry Arena. The odds will be heavily stacked towards New Zealand and Australia, the antipodean giants, with Fijiana the only side likely to derail them.

Commonwealth Games players to watch

Reapi Ulunisau of Fiji competes for the ball (Getty Images)

The quality across New Zealand’s squad is clear and obvious. Sarah Hirini, their talismanic leader, glues the reigning Commonwealth, Sevens World Cup and Olympic champions together.

If you were to chart the improvement of Fijiana over the past four years it would be at a 45-degree angle. They have passion, energy and flair, and play in a completely uninhibited way, which makes them so dangerous against sides who tend to find more structure. Their not-so-secret weapon is Reapi Ulunisau, who strides away as fast as a track star.

Tim Walsh, who took Australia to gold at Rio 2016, is back at the helm. He has picked up where he left off, bringing in cross-sports athletes perfectly adapted to rugby. Alongside the evergreen Charlotte Caslick is megastar-in-waiting Maddison Levi. Levi is just 18 months into her rugby career having switched from AFL but she has found her feet, and the try-line, using her 6ft frame to brilliant effect in all aspects of the game.

Who can win?

So predictions… South Africa’s men won 36 consecutive games to start this season but have fallen away. They, and Samoa, will be challengers to the big three of Australia, New Zealand and Fiji, any of which could win the gold.

The women’s is a straight shootout between New Zealand and Australia; I really like how Australia have curbed the power of the Black Ferns. And don’t forget Fijiana’s surprise attack!

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