Not quite Sevens heaven but Aussies did well

by Jill Scanlon

The 2016-17 Men's Sevens World Series was very much a watershed season with new, young faces being tested while some veterans remained past Rio to ensure the former were on the right path.

Without dispute South Africa, runner-up for the past four years, was a worthy winner of the big prize.

The championship title can be seen not only as reward for an outstanding season but for consistency in performance across those years.

There was some evidence that the Rio 2016 party had taken a toll across the teams but the Blitzboks showed little sign of that.

It was a big year too for the Aussie team.

From the outset, coach Andy Friend underlined a goal of achieving a regular place in the top eight on the road to rebuilding a strong, new-look post-Rio squad in the build-up to a busy 2018 schedule that will include the Commonwealth Games.

The ambitious objective was to be competitive while blooding a significant number of young players, new to the rigours of the international sevens scene, a box that was surely ticked.

Expectations were not high as the season kicked off in December, for a unit which had been decimated by both departures and injuries to its core numbers.

Friend however took the youngsters and flung them into the fray of elite competition, under the guidance of a couple of seasoned veterans who directed them around the park and then let them have their heads.

It worked for the most part with the occasional stumble, but to the public and experts alike watching on, the debutants in the team impressed, not only through their talent but with their youthful enthusiasm and their unwavering determination.

The form shown to take fifth place in the first outing in Dubai stopped everyone in their tracks and the adrenalin began to rise, though that subsided with 10th and 11th finishes in the next two tournaments.

In Sydney however, the young squad took a giant step forward and rarely stumbled in front of a home crowd which turned out in unexpectedly large numbers to underline the fact that the move to the Harbour City the previous year had been the right one for the World Series.

Finishing sixth overall for the 2016-17 World Series was a major achievement when all factors are considered.

But on reflection, perhaps it is not the final placing which holds the most significance for the Aussie Sevens unit but the breadth of talent uncovered in the emerging generation of rugby players.

While there is disappointment at the recent decisions of star rookie Henry Hutchison and key playmaker Nick Malouf to move to the XVs game, there is confidence in the foundations being laid at Narrabeen, especially after the securing of some of this emerging talent for the busy road ahead.

The rest of the pack

Eight of the 10 titles were shared among the top three teams but the other two were secured by two teams outside the top six finishers in the World Series rankings.

If nothing else, this reflects the dynamism of the game of Sevens on any given weekend.

The indisputable kings of 2016, Fiji stumbled in 2017 finishing third overall with one title, three second place finishes and a third in its first season under new coach Gareth Baber.

The Pacific Islanders seemed to suffer the same malaise as the Aussie women in the aftermath of Olympic gold, not quite hitting the heights of the previous season, although they did secure the one title, their favourite Hong Kong crown, mid-season.

New Zealand had an uncharacteristically average series with its best result being Bronze medals at three tournaments.

The USA proved that with consistency comes success as, following a rocky start to the season, it finished with top four placings in five of the last six tournaments but did not secure a title.

The Eagles will be keen to make that extra push and breakthrough into that top three next season.

Scotland started with immense promise but seemed to go walkabout as the season settled, only to then finish with a bang in the final two rounds, securing a London victory in the successful defence of its 2016 title. What happened in the middle five rounds is anyone’s guess.

Canada had a mixed season of performances which all paled under the glow of its historic victory in taking the Singapore title – its first on the World Series circuit.

France dropped away reflecting the effect of the change many teams were undergoing in both player and coaching personnel but managed to find a gem or two in the wash-up.

The Next Gen

One of the highlights of the season was the emergence of the next batch of Sevens talent.

Argentina’s young gun Matías Osadczuk impressed everyone before being struck by a season-ending injury in Hong Kong. As one of the standout discoveries of the World Series, he went on to win the Rookie of the Year award – and he only played half the season.

The Kiwis found Vilimoni Koroi and Andrew Knewstubb; France for all it lacked across the season unearthed a shining light in Alexandre Lagarde.

The Aussie youth onslaught came from players such as Simon Kennewell, Tim Anstee, Lachie Anderson, Liam McNamara, and Charlie Taylor with others waiting in the wings.

The beauty of each Sevens season is the ever increasing level of skill and intensity in the competition but also the new talent and new teams which get to strive for excellence among the established champions of the game.

Bring on 2018

In 2018 the standard of International Sevens is expected to go up yet another notch.

With eight of the top 10 core teams eligible to participate in the Commonwealth Games, it will be like an added round to the series and make for a very busy schedule.

There will be the regular ten round World Series kicking off in Dubai in the first week of December; the Gold Coast event in the middle and the World Cup in early July, just one month after London - so it will be an action-packed seven month season of Sevens.