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Paris preview

The World Sevens Series reaches its final stop in Paris – and the series has never had a closer finish.

Australia are just four points (two places) ahead of New Zealand. In practice this means that if Australia reach the final they win the series.

So either New Zealand win their pool have to hope that someone else beats Australia before the final… or hope that one of them fails to win their pool so that they meet in the semi-final.

We have been here before. In 2015 Russia only needed to reach the final of the European Championship in Malemort to win the series – and a place in the Olympic Games in Rio. They duly won their pool, and then watched on in astonishment as rivals France lost to the Netherlands – until Spain sent an understrength team to Kazan last year the only occasion where a World Series team had lost to a team from outside the series.

As a result, Russia and France found themselves in the same half of the quarter final draw and met in the semi-finals. France won, and went to Rio. Russia didn’t.

No-one has ever officially accused France of.. not trying as hard as they might (let us say) that afternoon, but it is noticible that World Rugby have taken steps to at least reduce the temptation for a repetition this weekend. Normally New Zealand’s Pool A plays last in each round, which would have meant that they would have known where Australia had finished and could have played accordingly. But in Paris World Rugby - for the first time ever we think - scheduled Pool A to play first.

Elsewhere the tournament is heavily overshadowed by the World Cup, with several squads showing significant levels of experimentation.

Pool A

Pool A stands out as being just one team short of a Home Nations championship.

New Zealand

The Black Ferns to Paris with A Commonwealth Games gold and victories in Kitakyushu and Langford behind them, including a record 46-0 win against Australia latter.

 “Sometimes it all goes right in a match, but it certainly won’t always go like that and we know complacency is the death of success. We had a few matches where we struggled to get through against Fiji and England so there are things to work on,” said Bunting.

The only change to the squad from the last tournament is the inclusion of Shiray Kaka (nee Tane), after last playing for the Black Ferns Sevens in 2016. “Shiray is an electric player and it’s great to have her back. Michaela Blyde has been consistent for us in recent times, but we need another winger and Shiray has trained hard; she’s fit, prepared and ready to get back into it.”

 “We’ve only lost two games this Series but losing the quarter-final in Dubai really gutted us. Now, we can only take care of what we can control which is to play our best game by game."

The squad left New Zealand on Tuesday, looking to use the extra time in France to acclimatise and recover. “Instead of having an assembly in New Zealand, we travel earlier and that gives us the opportunity to be 100 per cent ready to go come tournament time.”

The squad is: Shakira Baker - Waikato; Michaela Blyde - Bay of Plenty; Kelly Brazier - Bay of Plenty; Gayle Broughton - Taranaki; Theresa Fitzpatrick - Auckland; Sarah Goss - Manawatu; Tyla Nathan-Wong - Auckland; Shiray Kaka - Waikato; Ruby Tui - Bay of Plenty; Stacey Waaka - Waikato; Niall Williams - Auckland; Tenika Willison - Waikato; Portia Woodman - Counties Manukau

Ireland

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Pool A is that the second round of games will give us a full dress rehearsal of next month’s World Cup first round match between Ireland and England. This may be why the two teams have kept their selection close to their chests, only announcing their squads at the last possible minute.

For Ireland Aoife Doyle, who missed the last two legs of the series through injury, returns to the squad line-up, while Ashleigh Baxter will set a new record as she becomes Ireland's most-capped Sevens player in Paris, winning her 27th Sevens cap, adding to her 24 caps as a 15s international.

Kathy Baker, Katie Fitzhenry, Louise Galvin, Katie Heffernan, Eve Higgins, Deirbhile Nic a Bhaird and Hannah Tyrrell were all selected for the Canada leg last month and retain their squad places for the final tournament of the 2017/18 World Series campaign.

Ahead of the weekend, Anthony Eddy, the IRFU Director of Sevens, said: "The team is looking to build on the performance from Canada (where we finished sixth overall). We are again in a tough pool, but there are no easy games on the World Series and the players are confident of finishing this series season on a good note.

"The team has shown great improvement during the year and it would be only fitting for them to have a performance that reflects all the hard work and commitment they demonstrate."

Langford saw them finish sixth - their best result for the year.

Squad: Ashleigh Baxter (Cooke/Ulster); Kathy Baker (Blackrock/Leinster); Aoife Doyle (Railway Union/Munster); Katie Fitzhenry (Blackrock/Leinster); Stacey Flood (Railway Union/Leinster); Louise Galvin (UL Bohemians/Munster); Eve Higgins (Railway Union/Leinster); Katie Heffernan (Railway Union); Lucy Mulhall (Rathdrum) (capt); Amee-Leigh Murphy Crowe (Railway Union/Munster); Deirbhile Nic a Bhaird (UL Bohemians/Munster); Hannah Tyrrell (Old Belvedere/Leinster)

England

With less than 24 hours to go England have still not formally announced their squad for Paris, which makes previewing them somewhat tricky. England currently languish in eight place in the series - a position they are most unlikley to improve upon (they are nine points behind Spain) but which they will have to play well to defend, and just one point ahead of Ireland and four ahead of Fiji. Although England have said that this year they were concentrating on the Commonwealth Games and World Cup - and successfully medaled in the former - the prospect of slipping as low as tenth must be a concern and will certainly be far below expectations.

Team selection will be very interesting, both the overall squad and for individual games. The World Cup first round rehersal against Ireland will be particularly interesting, especially as a quarter-final and overall world series ranking could well be at stake. On the other hand Wales, who posed a threat last year in the European Championship, were well beaten by England's Commonwealth games team. But perhaps it is the opener against New Zealand that is the most intriguing. The Ferns tend to start tournaments slowly, and England always raise their game when they play them - they actually have the best record of any team (other than Australia) against the Ferns.

Wales

Prior to this weekend Wales have been without doubt the strongest team never to have played in the World Series. That changes this weekend.

"This World Series is a great test for our squad which is ever-decreasing in average age," said coach Nick Wakley. "Eighteen-year-old Alex Callender really impressed in Centrale Sevens and deserves an opportunity to test herself at this level. Alisha Butchers had a challenging time over the Commonwealth Games and World Series Qualifier with injury but has shown fantastic commitment to training and rehab to return to fitness for this.”

Ironically just as Wales finally get taste of the highest level of sevens, it has been announced that they are going to lose their coach

"As this will be my last tournament for Wales Women Sevens, I hope we can build on our performances at the end of the Commonwealth Games, and really look to express ourselves as a team. I firmly believe there are better things to come for this group of players, and it fills me with hope with the new crop of youngsters we are exposing to this elite level."

Wakley added: "I will feel absolute pride in the job I've done and in my players over the two years and I believe I have left the programme in a better place."

Tournaments like the Centrale Sevens can be misleading as opposition squads are often not quite what they seem. Nonetheless Wales finished third overall, only losing to Tuks - which was which largely featured players from the South African national squad. This will be a massive set up from that event, but an important step on the way for Wales to reach the World Series - which is certainly not beyond them.

Wales Sevens: Alex Callender, Alisha Butchers, Beth Lewis, Elinor Snowsill, Gemma Rowland, Hannah Jones, Jasmine Joyce, Jess Kavanagh-Williams, Kayleigh Powell, Lucy Packer, Shona Powell-Hughes, Sian Williams (c), Niamh Terry.

Pool B

Pool B looks incredibly tough with three of the top five teams in the overall series

Australia

Charlotte Caslick will co-captain the Aussie Sevens with Shannon Parry as one of the two official leaders, as Sharni Williams missed another tournament with injury.

Williams injured her ankle in the Commonwealth Games and has been unable to shake the niggle off.  She is one of three big name players still missing from the squad, with Alicia Quirk (knee) and Ellia Green also on the sidelines, hopeful of a return for July’s Sevens World Cup.

There is just one change to the squad from that which came second in the Langford Sevens last month, with Cassie Staples returning to the main squad, pushing Georgie Friedrichs into the 13th spot, with Lily Dick missing out.

John Manenti, who was officially installed as the team's permanent coach last week, said his side's destiny was in its own hands. “I’ve been really happy with how we’ve prepared. We set some targets to work on and I’ve been happy with the work we’ve done.," he said. "The ball is in our court now to finish the year strongly. We know the challenge and we know the opposition. We have a tough Pool with Fiji, Russia and Canada. Our first goal is to get through the Pool in good shape and then we will take it from there.”

Squad: 1.Shannon Parry, co-captain, 27 caps QLD and Griffith University; 2.Yasmin Meakes, 2 caps, ACT and University of Canberra; 3. Demi Hayes, 6 caps, QLD and Griffith University; 4. Dominique Du Toit, 9 caps, QLD and Macquarie University; 5. Emma Tonegato, 21 caps, NSW and University of Adelaide; 6. Evania Pelite, 17 caps, QLD and University of Adelaide; 7. Charlotte Caslick, co-captain, 25 caps, QLD and Bond University; 8. Page McGregor, 2 caps, NSW and Macquarie University; 9. Emma Sykes, 9 caps, QLD and University of Queensland; 10. Lauren Brown, 2 caps, QLD and Griffith University; 11. Emilee Cherry, 28 caps, QLD and University of Queensland; 12. Cassandra Staples, 6 caps, NSW and University of Canberra; 13. Georgina Friedrichs, 10 caps, QLD and University of Tasmania

Canada

Only one change is seen in the line-up that placed fifth at Canada Sevens in Langford, BC two weeks ago. Brittany Benn returns from injury to replace Julia Greenshields who is unavailable. 26-year-old, Bianca Farella comes into the tournament as Canada’s in-form player, after scoring eight tries in Langford, including a hat-trick against Ireland. The powerful runner is now only four tries away from a century of five-pointers on the World Series and sits in fourth place on the ‘all-time most tries scored’ standings.

“The group is excited to get back on tour and have another go ahead of the World Cup”, John Tait. We’re going to try some new combinations in Paris with some of the girls coming back from injury, I believe we’re in good shape. It’s the last stop ahead of the World Cup so it really gives us a chance to bend down what we’re doing in a team setting. We want to refine a couple of things that we’re doing on attack and build off of the defence we finished with in Langford.

“The girls know that we traditionally hit a little bit of form late in the season so that’s why we’ve generally had good finishes in France over the last couple of years. It’s a new tournament and a new venue for us and it’s exciting to play alongside the men again. It doesn’t matter where we play, we’ve just got to make sure we turn up on defence and attack.”

However coming up against a full-strength Russia, as well as Australia, makes this a massively tough pool. Canada will need the level of performance they achieved at the start of the series to even be sure of a quarter-final spot.

Squad: 1. Olivia Apps – Lindsay RFC (Lindsay, ON); 2. Britt Benn – Guelph Redcoats (Napanee, ON); 3. Pam Buisa – Ottawa Irish (Gatineau, QC); 4. Caroline Crossley – Castaway Wanderers (Victoria, BC); 5. Hannah Darling – Peterborough Pagans (Warsaw, ON); 6. Bianca Farella – Town of Mount Royal RFC (Montreal, QC); 7. Sara Kaljuvee – Toronto Scottish (Ajax, ON); 8. Ghislaine Landry – Toronto Scottish (Toronto, ON); 9. Kayla Moleschi – Williams Lake Rustlers (Williams Lake, BC); 10. Breanne Nicholas – London St. Georges RFC (Blenheim, ON); 11. Natasha Watcham-Roy – Hull Volant (Gatineau, QC); 12. Charity Williams – Markham Irish (Toronto)

Fiji

Coverage of the Fijiana's preparations for Paris have been heavily overshadowed by their men's team's bid for their title. As a result details of the squad have yet to emerge. After an encouraging 2016/17 series, Fiji will be disappointed to languish in tenth place, but a good performance could bring them up as high as eighth. Langford was encouraging with a quarter-final spot, though the lack of wins of day two left them in eighth. However, they do find themselves against three of the top teams in the series so getting out of the pool seems unlikely.

Russia

Langford's 12th place can for ignored as they rested pretty much the entire squad. They are all back this time and - despite Langford - fourth place overall is a real possibility especially if they can get past Canada. The squad selected appears to be the strongest available.

Arina Bystrova; Anna Gavrilyuk; Yana Danilova; Daria Noritsina; Kristina Seredina; Daria Shestakova; Elena Zdrokova; Alena Mikhaltsova; Maria Perestyak; Anna Baranchuk; Darya Lushina; Bayzat Khamidova

Pool C

United States

After their Bronze finish in Langford the USA look ahead to Paris with a chance to finish the series in the top four.

With Sarah Buonopane and Kate Zackary not traveling to France, Ilona Maher will make her senior international debut. A standout athlete from Quinnipiac University, Maher recently helped Scion Rugby Academy earn an Elite title at the 2018 Las Vegas Invitational.

"This group has worked incredibly hard to keep momentum building from our last Stop”, says coach Ritchie Walker. “We've been focused on finding the right balance between tactical and technical execution so our strategy remains consistent to the medal finish we achieved last month. Every opponent we face in Paris will be that much more physical and determined to produce a promising result as the season ends. Knowing this, it will be critical for us to minimize errors and produce as many opportunities as we can to stay ahead on the scoreboard."

The USA are one of three teams battling for fourth (Russia and Canada being the other two) and have benefited from a draw that should see them comfortably into the quarter-finals.

1. Jordan Gray ; 2. Cheta Emba ; 3. Abby Gustaitis ; 4. Joanne Fa'avesi ; 5. Ryan Carlyle ; 6. Nicole Heavirland (C) ; 7. Kayla Canett ; 8. Lauren Doyle ; 9. Ilona Maher ; 10. Alev Kelter ; 11. Kris Thomas ; 12. Naya Tapper

France

France are pretty much assured of third spot in the series – a great achievement for an overall squad that also won the Six Nations, achieving the difficult task of moving players in and out of sevens and fifteens. What has been particularly impressive has been the way that the French performance has not wavered despite squad changes through injury, Six Nations call-ups, or clashes with the Top 8 finals.

Captain Fanny Horta has been delighted by her team’s performances. “This is the first time this season we have reach this ranking. Many girls joined the squad this year and have taken the opportunity produce good performances in tournaments.

“Many things that have changed since the start: our the state of mind, game preparations, and how to approach tournaments. We have the confidence that we have the ability to do something big. We win with more regularity. Whereas in the past were worried about making the quarter-finals, today, we feel that it is a step but it should not cause us undue stress. Even if we do not win against certain nations, we feel we are getting closer and that is very positive.”

Coralie Bertrand (FFR / Stade Toulousain); Anne-Cécile Ciofani (FFR / AC Bobigny); Caroline Drouin (FFR / Stade Rennais Rugby); Marjorie Mayans (FFR / Blagnac Rugby Women); Camille Grassineau (FFR / Stade Français Paris); Lina Guérin (FFR / Entente AS Marcoussis US Limours); Fanny Horta (FFR) - Captain; Shannon Izar (FFR / Lille Métropole RC Villeneuvois); Chloé Pelle (FFR / Lille Métropole RC Villeneuvois); Joanna Sainlo (FFR / AC Bobigny 93 Rugby); Charlotte Torres Duxans (Blagnac Rugby Female ); Jessy Tremouliere (FFR / Stade Rennais)

Japan

This is Japan’s final tournament before inevitable relegation. In Langford they did win the Challenge – doubling their series points total in what must have been a massively disappointing series overall. They now return to the wilderness for at least a year. If would be good to see them make at least one quarter-final before they do, but it’s hard to see them achieving that.

Yume Ohkuroda; Fumiko Ohtake; Mifuyu Koide; Tomomi Kozasa; Ano Kuwai; Sayaka Suzuki; Yukari Tateyama; Emii Tanaka; Noriko Taniguchi; Chiharu Nakamura; Iroha Nagata; Bativakalolo Raichelmiyo; Yume Hirano

Spain

With Spain safe any question of relegation coach Pedro De Matías is again using the tournament to prepare for the World Cup. As a result Uri Barrutieta, Enara Cacho and María Losada are called into the team in replacement for Eli Martinez, Teresa Bueso and Olivia Fresneda.

Despite 10th place in Langford Spain sit in a solid 7th place overall, a position that is unlikely to change regardless of results in Paris. Overall this is been an impressive series for the Spanish, ending as Europe’s third best team will be their best result since the last World Cup.

The slightly experimental nature of the makes predicting outcomes difficult, but given the pool it is entirely possible for Spain to reach the quarter-finals.

Iera Echebarria Fernández;  Sabina Hurtado Vaquerizo;  Olivia Fresneda Fernández;  Ingrid. Algar González;  Marina. Bravo Bragado;  Amaia. Erbina Spider;  Elisabeth Martínez García;  María  Casado González;  María Ribera García;  Bárbara. Pla Vegué;  Patricia García Rodriguez;  Teresa;  Bueso Gómez;