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Atlanta Women's Sevens Preview

Round three of the Women’s Sevens World Series begins on Friday in Atlanta. Can Australia continue their run and make it three wins in three? Will last season’s champions New Zealand rediscover their form? Will the United States repeat the success they had last year?

Dominique du Toit Australia's newest teenage sensation - makes her debut in Atlanta (Photo: ARU)

This year’s World Series is, of course heavily overshadowed by the Rio Olympics which is now barely four months away. As New Zealand coach Sean Horan said last week: "We believe 2016 is not going to be remembered for the series, it’s going to be remembered for Rio."

One result of this has been the use of the series as a preparation for Rio, with several teams selecting at times experimental squads for some rounds – most notably Russia and France in the previous round in Sao Paulo – which is making the tournaments even more unpredictable.

In addition, there have been some subtle rule changes. In the end, it is perhaps not too surprising that World Rugby failed to make much fuss about this as they are somewhat unexciting, compared to what happens on the field. Nonetheless they matter.

First, on Day Two certain pool winners now always play in certain quarter-finals, regardless of their performance on Day One. So, unlike previous seasons (and also the tournament regulations that are on the WSWS website) the quarter-final draw is now always:

Winner of Pool A v Second best third-placed team
Winner of Pool B v Best third-placed team
Winner of Pool C v Runner-up of Pool A
Runner-up of Pool B v Runner-up of Pool C

A second change is clear from the pool draw for this round. In previous years the seeding for each tournament was based in overall standings in the series, but now rankings are based only on the result of the previous tournament – which will hopefully eliminate (or at least reduce) the “Dubai Effect”, where poor result in the opening round resulted in low future rankings that were very difficult to recover from. As a result, there are some tough-looking pools for Atlanta.

Pool A

Australia, England and the unpredictable (but occasionally brilliant) Fiji would suggest a tough pool, but the inclusion of Colombia would suggest that the top three will all make the quarters with some ease.

Australia (series rank: 1)

Australia must start as favourites to both top the pool and win the tournament (though their record in North America is remarkably poor). Tim Walsh’s team have not put a foot wrong since the end of the last series and seem to be timing their run for Rio almost perfectly.

The highlight of Australia’s selection for Atlanta is the inclusion of Dominique du Toit.

It is almost a surprise to see that this will be her WSWS debut (she made her senior debut at the Pacific Games last year) as the 18-year-old has been making headlines for a couple of years now. With both Youth Olympics and Commonwealth Youth Games gold medals already in her bag she could be going for a truly remarkable treble later this year, if she makes the most of this opportunity.

Coach Tim Walsh said: "Dom [du Toit] is a player I believe has a big future in the game. Everyone enjoyed watching her pace in the Youth Olympics in Nanjing and she showed how much her game had evolved during the Comm Youth Games in Samoa last September, particularly her defensive side. She's an exciting prospect and one to keep an eye on.

In addition, three players return after long-term injuries - Tiana Penitani, Chloe Dalton and Brooke Walker while Shannon Parry will continue to deputise as skipper in the absence of the injured Sharni Williams (knee). Gemma Etheridge (knee), Ellia Green (shoulder) and Brooke Anderson (leg).

"Even though we have shown character to win the two legs so far this season,” Walsh continued, “it's fair to say we have faced challenges. We haven't had the luxury of having 12 fit players for a Finals Day yet so I'm hoping our luck changes on that front. That said, it just shows the quality in depth we need if we are to keep performing to the level we want during each tournament."

Australia squad: 1. Shannon Parry. Place of Birth: Brisbane, QLD; 2. Tiana Penitani. Place of Birth: Canberra, ACT. Hometown: Maroubra, NSW; 3. Dominique du Toit. Place of Birth: Maronderra, Zimbabwe. Hometown: Toowoomba, QLD; 4. Brooke Walker. Place of Birth: Auckland, NZ. Hometown: Brisbane, QLD; 5. Emma Tonegato. Place of Birth: Wollongong, NSW; 6. Evania Pelite. Place of Birth: Brisbane, QLD; 7. Charlotte Caslick. Place of Birth: Brisbane, QLD; 8. Chloe Dalton. Place of Birth: Singapore. Hometown: Mona Vale, NSW; 9. Amy Turner. Place of Birth: Tokoroa, NZ; 10. Alicia Quirk. Place of Birth: Wagga Wagga, NSW; 11. Emilee Cherry. Place of Birth: Roma, QLD. Hometown: Toowoomba, QLD; 12. Mahalia Murphy. Place of Birth: Blacktown, NSW. Hometown: Sydney, NSW

Fiji (series rank: 7)

Fiji remain arguably the most dangerous team on the circuit because of their sheer unpredictability. Their occasional flashes of brilliance are now becoming more and more common and if they could just perform consistently across the two days then a podium finish would be well within their grasp.

Coaches Chris Cracknell and Iliesa Tanivula continue to experiment with the Fiji squad, and for Atlanta they bring in former netball international Matila Waqanidrola and High School student Merewai Cumu (who played for Fiji in the Commonwealth Youth Games).

Coach Tanivula was happy with the duo's output in the training which earned them a place in the final squad. "They had been trying very hard in the training and they did really very well to prove their worth," he said. "It is going to be a very big tournament for them in the coming days. We are all focusing on the bigger picture which is the Olympic Games in Rio, Brazil."

He also said he was happy with the attitude of the players. "We have come a long way in the training since it was very intense. The attitude of the players have changed and they know the importance of the Olympic Games. We have also been consistent from past year and that is the way forward."

Fiji Squad: Litia Naiqato, Asinate Savu, Rusila Nagasau, Talica Vodo, Jiowana Sauto, Ana Maria Roqica, Miriama Marama, Viniana Riwai, Miriama Naiobasaga, Rebecca Tavo, Lavenia Tinai, Luisa Tisolo, Matila Waqanidrola, Merewai Cumu. Management: Chris Cracknell, Iliesa Tanivula, Jennifer Khalik, Mathew Dooley.

England (series rank: 5)

Pressure will be high on the England team after a disappointing Sao Paulo leg that saw them only manage to record wins over Brazil and Japan. For a team with podium ambitions it was a set back after an encouraging performance in Dubai where wins over Canada and France had given them third place. Given their position in the third group of seeds for Atlanta, the draw has been relatively kind and they should pick up at least second place – though that would almost certainly give them a quarter against New Zealand.

Head Coach Simon Middleton sees the draw as a positive: “Atlanta is a fantastic draw for us with Australia as our first game. They're a side we don’t play that often and if we want to improve, we need to be able to go out and beat those sides. We’re only going to get confident at beating them by playing them and that’s exactly the opportunity we’ve got in Atlanta. We’re in a good place mentally and physically to go out and give a good account of ourselves.”

Emily Scarratt returns to captain the side, while 19-year-old Abbie Brown, who made her series debut with two tries in Sao Paulo, is listed in a squad of familiar names.

England Squad: Claire Allan, Abbie Brown, Rachael Burford, Heather Fisher, Natasha Hunt, Sarah Mckenna, Katy Mclean, Alice Richardson, Emily Scarratt (C), Emily Scott, Danielle Waterman, Jo Watmore, Kay Wilson, Amy Wilson Hardy

Colombia (unranked)

Colombia make their World Series debut in Atlanta, their first chance to discover what they will be up against in Rio. Although improving steadily for some years their win in the South American qualifier remains by far the biggest shock result in the process to date. They slipped to third in last month’s South American Championship, losing 19-15 to Argentina in the pool and 31-0 to Brazil in the semi-final.

So to say they will find it tough is an understatement. Their only previous taste of sevens outside South America was the Dublin WSWS qualifier last year where they finished 10th after being bottom of their pool and losing to Kenya in the Bowl final. And, as Japan and Ireland have found, the full Women’s Sevens World Series is an appreciable step-up from the qualifier.

Colombia squad: Claudia Alejandra Betancur; Laura Isabel Gonzalez; Katherinne Paola Medina; Nicole Jocelin Acevedo; Maria Camila Lopera; Cindy Solangie Delgado; Ana Catalina Ramirez; Estefania Ramirez; Laura Andrea Garcia; Andrea Katerine Fernandez; Guadalupe De La Cruz Lopez; Sharon Evelin Acevedo

Pool B

The new seeding rules has given us arguably the toughest pool in Women’s Sevens World Series history with three teams from the overall series top six. On paper it could go any way, but with Russia and France likely to field similar experimental teams as in Sao Paulo, Canada will begin as favourites for the pool. France and Russia should fill the other two spots though whichever one finishes third could miss out on the quarters.

Canada (series rank: 2=)

Coach John Tait faces the challenge of having the core of a first-choice team missing for Atlanta through injury. Elissa Alarie, Britt Benn, Magali Harvey, Ashley Steacy and Natasha Watcham-Roy are all out.

As a result, 20-year-old Emmanuela Jada will make her Women’s Sevens Series debut. “I'm extremely excited!” Jada said. “It's been lots of learning and hard work after transitioning into the programme from university rugby. I'm really looking forward to gaining experience in the series, as this is the highest level of rugby I've yet to play.”

Although new to the WSWS, she is not lacking in international experience as she was part of Canada’s gold medal winning team at the 2014 FISU World University Sevens Championships in Brazil and played with Maple Leafs in Vancouver last month. In addition, she has 15s honours with the U20 team and including the recent tour of England where she showed her speed with a 70m solo try.

“Jada has explosive speed and carries aggressively,” said Tait. “Defensively she is improving very quickly and beginning to create some positive turnovers.”

Jen Kish will once again captain Canada who will be looking to build on an excellent Sao Paulo, where they were runners-up.

“Since Sao Paulo, we’ve been working on our footwork and executing our calls,” Kyla Mack said. “Vancouver went pretty well for both of our Maple Leaf teams and we had some good results but we of course always want to build and get better so we’re working on making everything a little bit crisper and focusing on all of our basics as we head into Atlanta.”

 “All three of the teams in out pool can tackle well and contest the breakdowns,” Tait said. “Russia have speed all through their line up and can hit home runs from anywhere so we will have to be sharp and connected in our defence against them. France relies on a lot of continuity and passing to wear down defences and create a lot of turnovers from their hard-hitting style. Ireland has struggled for results but are improving rapidly each tour. Our focus will be on taking as many of the opportunities we create in our attack and finishing them as early and often as possible, to keep all three of our pool opponents chasing the game and under a lot of pressure.”

Canada squad: Hannah Darling – (Peterborough Pagans) Warsaw, ON; Bianca Farella – (Town of Mont Royal RFC) Montreal, QC; Emmanuela Jada (Guelph Redcoats) Guelph, ON; Sara Kaljuvee – (Toronto Scottish) Ajax, ON; Jen Kish – (Edmonton Rockers) Edmonton, AB; Ghislaine Landry – (Toronto Scottish) Toronto, ON ; Megan Lukan – (Unattached) Barrie, ON; Kayla Mack – (Wild Oats) Saskatoon, SK; Kayla Moleschi - (Williams Lake Rustlers) Williams Lake, BC; Karen Paquin - (Club de Rugby Quebec) Quebec City, QC; Kelly Russell - (Toronto Nomads) Bolton, ON; Charity Williams – (Markham Irish) Toronto, ON

France (series rank: 4)

Although they do not say so, France must have been quietly pleased with their plate win in Sao Paulo with a relatively experimental team, and that experimentation continues in the next two legs. Coach David Courteix continues his policy of open competition for places by selecting fifteen players to travel to North America and pre-announcing that Jessy Tremouliere, Shannon Izar and Jennifer Troncy will come in at Langford, taking the place of three players in the Atlanta squad.

It is a policy that seems to be working. Since Sao Paulo, France have won the international tournament in Las Vegas, and finished runners-up in Vancouver.

"We are making progress in the game, we are able to win games that we would have lost not long ago, so we going in the right direction," says David Courteix coach, adding: "Yet, there is frustration because there is room to do much better. We're missing three or four things that could be improved to click and change everything."

These "details", he says, include having different game options, better running angles, and technique (particularly for the final pass), "It is our fault we let the chances go begging," lamented the coach.

Training is being reviewed and corrected with the target on Rio. "We will not change how much training we do because it is already right”, added Courteix, “but we are reorganising the sessions and rethinking how we develop the right techniques, and increase the number of opposed situations because we need to work under pressure. "

France squad: Pauline Biscarat (Bobigny); Laürelin Fourcade (Bordeaux); Camille Grassineau (Bordeaux); Lina Guerin (Marcoussis); Clémence Gueucier (Bobigny); Elodie Guiglion (FFR); Fanny Horta (FFR); Caroline Ladagnous (Bobigny); Jade Le Pesq (Rennes); Marjorie Mayans (Blagnac St-Orens); Chloé Pelle (Lille MRCV); Rose Thomas (Bordeaux)

Russia (series rank: 6)

The Russian squad has yet to be announced, but Pavel Baronovsky has already said that he will be mixing his teams for both Atlanta and Langford in the same way that he did for Atlanta, so it is reasonable to expect a similar performance.

Alena Mikhaltsova’s positive drug test for Meldonium will not have helped the team’s long term ambitions but it is by no means certain that she would have been selected for Atlanta, so is unlikely to have had an effect on this tournament. However if her ban is confirmed her absence in Dublin and Rio will be a blow.

Pavel’s eyes are almost entirely focused on Rio – understandably as Olympic success is the only route to improved (or even continued) funding, and it is worth remembering that Russia still have to qualify (though they must now be clear favourites to win the repecharge in Dublin).

So far, he has only annonced his 15 for both series in North America. Overall it contains most of the big names, but until the final 12 for Atlanta are announced it is hard to predict how the team will fare.

Russian squad for Atlanta and Langford: Bankerova, Bobkova, Bystrova, Fefelova, Khamidova, Kudinova, Kukina, Ledovskaya, Lushina, Minislamova, Perestyak, Petrova, Seredina, Shemchuk, Zdrokova

Ireland (series rank: 12)

It is not hard to imagine Ireland’s reaction to this pretty challenging draw, but any team in the fourth group of seeds will always be faced with tough opposition. That said the new rules mean that there is hope for moving forward if Ireland can win the Bowl, and with Brazil being replaced by Colombia that chance must have improved. Their chances of making the quarter finals this time round, however, seem remote.

Three members of the Irish squad for Atlanta were involved in the recent Six Nations. Sene Naoupu played in all of the Six Nations games; Alison Miller (who scored a hat-trick in Ireland's Six Nations win over Scotland) returns, while Kim Flood, who won her first XV cap against Italy will be making her World Series debut. On the other hand, Louise Galvin suffered a fractured leg in training and will miss out both North American legs.

Speaking ahead of the Atlanta tournament, IRFU Director of Sevens and Women's Rugby, Anthony Eddy, said: "While things didn't go as we'd have liked in Sao Paulo, we'll learn from those games and will look for better displays over the coming weeks. The girls have been putting the work in at training, but now it is about putting that work into practice and getting some results from it. The players who were involved in the Six Nations finished on a positive note, so hopefully we can carry that winning spirit to Atlanta."

Ireland squad: Ashleigh Baxter (Belfast Harlequins/Ulster); Katie Fitzhenry (Blackrock College/Leinster); Kim Flood (Railway Union/Leinster); Stacey Flood (Railway Union/Leinster); Claire Keohane (UL Bohemians/Munster); Alison Miller (Portlaoise/Connacht); Lucy Mulhall (Rathdrum/Leinster) (capt); Amee Leigh Crowe (Railway Union/Munster); Sene Naoupu (Galwegians/Connacht); Audrey O'Flynn (Talent ID Programme); Hannah Tyrrell (Old Belvedere/Leinster); Megan Williams (St. Mary's)

Pool C

New Zealand (series rank: 2=)

The Ferns will be looking to get back to the top after four successive disappointing results. That said, almost anyone else would be delighted to be lying in second place in the series and it is a sign of the high standards that the Ferns have set that we consider anything other than a tournament win to be a surprise.

The squad for Atlanta features newcomers Janna Vaughan and Terina Te Tamaki, and Theresa Fitzpatrick, while Shiray Tane and Stacey Waaka who return from injury. On the other hand Gayle Broughton, Kayla McAlister and Huriana Manuel are still unavailable.

Coach Sean Horan said the addition of new players was all about building more depth in 2016. “It’s a great opportunity for them to grow with back-to-back tournaments. They're both young, exciting rugby players who bring different dynamics to the team. Terina is a forward with great leg speed and Janna is very physical around the contact and at the clean out so in 2016 we thought this was something we needed to look at.”

Theresa Fitzpatrick has been a member of the sevens development squad. “She’s a great rugby player, very powerful, especially carrying the ball. She has great catch and pass skills, and good explosive speed off the mark so that all adds another string to our bow.

“We had to make some tough decisions as always with selection. We’re looking at bringing some players back and others have had to stay back to work and focus on their bodies to give them every chance for Rio. We want to give all our players the opportunity to put their hands up for the Olympics.”

Horan said a key goal for the two upcoming tournaments was to achieve a top three season ending place to ensure the team secured a favourable seeding for the Olympics in August. “The focus for 2016 was getting the squad ready for Rio and it would be great to win the World Series. Australia has jumped ahead pretty dramatically which is great for the game, but we believe 2016 is not going to be remembered for the series, it’s going to be remembered for Rio. Our focus is to get a quality squad with depth that can do the job in August.”

New Zealand Squad: Michaela Blyde (Taranaki); Kelly Brazier (Bay of Plenty); Theresa Fitzpatrick (Auckland); Sarah Goss (captain) (Manawatu); Tyla Nathan-Wong (Auckland); Shiray Tane (Hawke’s Bay); Terina Te Tamaki (Waikato); Ruby Tui (Canterbury); Janna Vaughan (Manawatu); Stacey Waaka (Waikato); Katarina Whata-Simpkins (Wellington); Niall Williams (Auckland); Selica Winiata (Manawatu); Portia Woodman (Counties Manukau)

United States (series rank: 8)

Sao Paulo was a significant step forward for the USA after a tough weekend in Dubai, but since then their demons have come back to haunt them. Reports of player discontent resulted in their second change of coach in less than a year – a less than helpful event so close to both their home WSWS round and the Rio Olympics.

Last week Richie Walker was announced as the replacement for Jules McCoy. Coming in from Southern California’s Girls’ Rugby programme, Walker has already been travelling the country visiting Academy Eagles Pathway camps scouting opportunities. In addition he worked alongside Ric Suggitt from 2012 to 2015, so his knowledge of players and potential players will be good.

Richie Walker first squad includes Jillion Potter taking over the role of captaincy "We have some real good experience," Walker said. "We have some good speed and we have some good power. To have Jillion Potter as the team captain is massive for the younger kids. They respect her tremendously."

Making their WSWS debuts are Meya Bizer and Nicole Heavirland, who played at the 2013 U20 Nations Cup.. Heavirland also played XVs in the Super Series last summer, while Bizer holds eight XVs caps, including five at Women's Rugby World Cup 2014. Both also played for the USA Falcons at both the Las Vegas Invitational tournament and Vancouver Rugby Festival in the past month. Lauren Doyle and Richelle Stephens return from injuries that forced them to miss Sao Paulo.

Walker split the group at the Olympic Training Center in four teams of seven earlier this week to aid in the selection process for Atlanta. "Meya and Nicole really showed their worth in those practice games," Walker said. "Meya's powerful, she knows rugby, and she has a good rugby brain. Nicole stepped up and proved herself. She's a strong runner and very aggressive. That's the look we have in this team – aggressive and a lot of speed."

Doyle is second most experienced player in the squad with 15appearence, just, two behind the absent Kelly Griffin, who misses out for the first time. Javelet scored 45 pointson her first appearance on the circuit in Atlanta in 2014, while Thomas leads the Eagles scoring this season with nine tries.

Though the Eagles will not have to worry about Olympic qualification as they did towards the latter stages of last season, only a maximum 18 matches are on offer for the remainder of the Series before the Rio 2016 Olympic Summer Games begin in August.

"I still have a patient outlook," Walker said of the run-up to the Games, "for me, it isn't about the hard work right now. Believe me, when we come back from Langford, that's when we're going to switch on to just all hard work. If I do my job and I do it right with the time we have, we should be able to prepare well enough for the Olympics. Every single day, every single minute matters."

United States Squad: 1. Jillion Potter (C) ; 2. Megan Bonny ; 3. Kate Zackary ; 4. Amelia Bizer ; 5. Ryan Carlyle ; 6. Nicole Heavirland ; 7. Alev Kelter ; 8. Bui Baravilala ; 9. Lauren Doyle ; 10. Richelle Stephens ; 11. Kristen Thomas ; 12. Jessica Javelet;

Japan (series rank: 11)

It has been a tough welcome to the World Series for Asia’s finest, but the absence of Brazil and runner-up position in the bowl in Sao Paulo put them in the third group of seeds and has given their best chance yet of making the final eight.

In additoin, their success in raching this level has brought them unprecedented levels of support, including new sponsorship deals from the likes of Coca Cola (Japan) and Citizen Watches, giving them a better financial base than they have ever had before.

Winger Marie Yamaguchi also says that important lessons are being learned as the Japanese team continues to adjust to life as a core team. “I think in the Dubai Sevens we were mentally tired from the Olympic qualifying tournament. It's always difficult after a big win in a tournament, like the Japanese men's team lost against Scotland after beating South Africa at the Rugby World Cup,” said Yamaguchi, who helped Japan secure their core team status and also win the Asian regional Olympic qualifier last year.

“So for the São Paulo tournament, we did lots of physical training and also focused on our work at key areas like the re-start. We saw improvements in the first half of games but in the second half we seemed to get fatigued.

“I’ve also found that if you make mistakes at this level you get punished.”

On a personal note, Yamaguchi is hoping to make more of an impact as the series progresses. “I'm still struggling to find space to run in to. Good teams have good defence but I have trained against boys for a month so hopefully I can find some nice running lines to score or to assist a team-mate. As we are a national team we always aim for ‘the best result’ and we believe we can do it (reach the last eight),” she said.

“We want to experience the top level of rugby and we appreciate being given these valuable opportunities to play against the world’s best teams,” added coach Asami Keiko. “We think that there are many things to learn to strengthen the team for Rio Olympics 2016.”

Japan squad: Chiharu Nakamura (captain); Ayaka Suzuki; Ano Kuwai; Marie Yamaguchi; Makiko Tomita; Suzuki Jitsu Saki; Misaki Suzuki; Chisato Yokoo; Kana Miki; Reiko Taniguchi Noriko ; Nakamaru Saikoromo; Takano Makoto Nozomi; Mio Yamanaka

Spain (series rank: 10)

Spain have a seriously tough few months ahead of them, with qualifiers for Rio and the XVs World Cup both looming on the horizon, plus the need to retain their place in the World Series. In addition, as things stand Spain are perilously close to possible relegation and will be hoping for a significant improvement on 11th place in Sao Paulo. A recent camp in Portugal came up with some positive results, but Spain need to start beating teams in the top eight if they are to achieve their ambitions.

The draw has been remarkably kind to them, given the results last time. They are quite capable of beating Japan, and the management turmoil in the USA camp will hardly be to their disadvantage. A quarter-final place is possible.

Bárbara Plà is the most significant absentee from the squad which otherwise contains all of the leadings names, with no new caps.

Spain squad: Amaia Erbina, Angela del Pan, Berta Garcia, Elizabet Martinez, Iera Etxebarria, Irene Schiavon, Marina Bravo, Maria Casado, Patricia Garcia, Paula Mein, Tesesa Bueso, Vanesa Rial