The top 16 World Rugby sevens teams regrouped in Wellington for round three of the HSBC World Series and following a lengthy New Year break, many were wondering what surprises would be in store.
Well, they found out – we all did, on and off the field, with Canada and Scotland showing they're serious contenders and South Africa stretching its series lead.
So what did we learn from a weekend in the ‘Land of the long white clouds’?
Wellington will suffer in stark contrast to Sydney
There has been much discussion around the viability of Wellington as a Sevens World Series host moving forward with astoundingly low crowd numbers for a sport which has seen amazing growth in both numbers and profile globally, since the Olympics. Once a highlight of the out, Wellington battled to attract 20,000 people each day, with the yellow expanses of Wellington Stadium clear even on the television broadcast. Sydney will stand out in contrast to its Oceania sister tournament this weekend as the series jumps across the Tasman. Following the success of last year’s inaugural event, Sydney has expanded to include a round of the Women’s series and organisers are anticipating sell-out crowds across the three-day tournament. New Zealand Rugby will be looking on and wondering why, in a traditional Rugby nation, fans have abandoned them and where they went wrong having been such an iconic World Series destination for so long.
Bottom eight results are not deterring the Aussies
It’s safe to say the Aussie Sevens Men’s squad is not only battling the ramifications of an almost totally new squad list but it is also having to deal with the effects of a growing injury list which currently sees up to eight of its key senior players sidelined. Coach Andy Friend remains positive but is not delusional, emphasising this team is in the major throes of a rebuilding phase, looking ahead to a very busy 2018 on the international stage. Despite this, the Wellington Sevens shone a light on the new young talent being fast-tracked into the Aussie squad and the coaching staff’s faith was immediately rewarded with impressive performances, in all games, from the teenagers who seem to be grabbing opportunities offered with both hands. Keep an eye out this weekend for the likes of Tate McDermott, Charlie Taylor, and Simon Kennewell among those who will hope to follow in the footsteps of teammate Henry Hutchison, remembered for bursting onto the international stage in Sydney last February.
Scotland on the rise
By all accounts, last season's final round victory at Twickenham has flicked the switch for the Scotland team. The confidence with which it has begun the 2017 series is making opposition teams sit up and take note. Finishing sixth in Dubai, fourth in Cape Town and now taking the bronze medal in Wellington, sees the tartan lads lead their pool as they head to Sydney for what is anticipated to become one of the big ticket items of the annual World Series calendar.
Canada – What was in their Xmas pudding?
Canada seems to have reinvented itself over the Christmas break and big man Adam 'Zoobs' Zaruba is leading the charge. Finishing 13th in both Dubai and Cape Town did not bode well for the North Americans or their new coach Damien McGrath, but something happened in the chill of the northern winter because the ‘Red Nation’ came out firing in Wellington and performed beyond expectation to finish fourth after a very tight battle against Scotland for a prized medal position. Sydney Sevens will be the gauge by which this team and its Wellington performance is measured as the players look to back up that top four finish against Argentina, Russia and close rivals, the USA.
Sevens is a savage game
One of the key things to stand out across the weekend is that the game of Sevens has a physical intensity, which brings with it a high attrition rate. Serious injuries depleted several teams’ stocks with few finishing the weekend unscathed. This will have ramifications on both performance and therefore results in Sydney this week. Australia, as the host of round four, has the advantage being able to replenish its fallen numbers, with Boyd Killingworth ruled out and two more are doubtful – including Wellington captain and key playmaker, Sam Myers.The other teams must manage with the squads they selected for this fortnight – something that could prove problematic for the likes of Scotland and Canada, both of whom performed well in New Zealand but may not be able to back up those performances. All eyes will now be on Sydney Sevens to really kick start the year, ticking all the boxes for World Rugby, the ARU and especially the sport of Sevens.