We look ahead to the start of the 2016/17 Women's World Series which kicks off in Dubai this weekend.
In a year when fifteens will be a greater priority than sevens for several of the teams, while others start to bulid for 2020, this year's Women's Sevens World Series promises to be more unpredictable than in recent years. Squad selections - especially when there are clashes with the Six Nations - will be particularly telling, and the recent Autumn Tests will have affected selections for this opening round.
However, Olympic Champions and title holders Australia still start as favourites.
South Africa, USA, Australia, Russia
Fresh from Olympic success, Australia will start this pool as clear favourites, with little disruption to their squad since Rio. Since then in fact they have kept on winning with titles at the Central Coast Sevens and Oceania Sevens tournaments.
This weekend's squad is featuring seven of their Olympic gold medallists with co captains Sharni Williams and Shannon Parr joined by Chloe Dalton, Emilee Cherry, Emma Tonegato, Alica Quirk and Charlotte Caslick - the World Sevens player of the year.
Four players will make their Springbok debuts in Dubai. Nadine Roos, Nomsa Mokwai, Christelene Steinhobel and Eloise Webb are the newcomers alongside an experienced core of players such as new captain Veroeshka Grain, her predecessor Zenay Jordaan and Phumeza Gadu. Another relative newcomer for South Africa, who join the 11 core teams in Dubai, is Zintle Mpupha who has one tournament to her name, the Amsterdam Sevens back in May 2014.
Russia, with a new coaching team, include several new faces but are noticably missing Byzat Khamidova. Missing out on Rio was predicted to have severe financial consequences for their programme, and it will be fascinating to see how the team bounces back from their disappointments last summer.
South Africa also have something to prove, having missed Rio as well thanks to the decisions of their Olympic Committee. However they have put that behind them and as African and Hong Kong champions appear to be in good form. With no World Cup distractions they will want to make the most of their guest appearences in this year's series.
USA coach Richie Walker has named five uncapped players in his squad. Cheta Emba, Bulou Mataitoga, Nicole Strasko, Kayla Canett and Kristen Sommer will join four Olympians.
Canett is the youngest member of the squad at only 18, with Ryan Carlyle, Lauren Doyle, Joanne Fa'avesi and Alev Kelter having been part of the Women's Sevens Eagles side that finished fifth at Rio 2016. Nicole Heavirland and Naya Tapper were Team USA travelling reserves for the Games.
Fa'avesi, Kelter, Tapper and Kate Zackary will travel to Dubai from France, where they are part of the 15s squad playing two tests against the French. The USA lost 36-10 on Tuesday and will play France again on Friday in Montpellier.
South Africa squad: Phumeza Gadu, Veroeshka Grain (captain), Zenay Jordaan, Jacqueline Kriel, Nomsa Mokwai, Lamla Momoti, Zintle Mpupha, Marithy Pienaar, Nadine Roos, Mathrin Simmers, Christelene Steinhobel, Eloise Webb
Russia: Artamonova, Bobkova, Bystrova, Gavrilyuk, Kudinova, Mikhaltsova, Minislamova, Perestyak, Petrova, Ryashina, Seredina, Zdrokova
Australia squad: Sharni Williams (co-captain), Shannon Parry (co-captain), Chloe Dalton, Tiana Penitani, Brooke Anderson, Georgie Friedrichs, Emilee Cherry, Emma Sykes, Alicia Quirk, Mahalia Murphy, Emma Tonegato
USA squad: Cheta Emba, Ryan Carlyle, Kate Zackary, Alev Kelter, Nicole Heavirland, Lauren Doyle, Naya Tapper, Joanne Fa'avesi, Nicole Strasko, Kayla Canett, Kristine Sommer, Bulou Mataitoga.
Ireland, New Zealand, France, Fiji
Nine members of the Irish squad who finished third in the Olympic repechage in Dublin in June to secure Ireland's core team place on the series will play in Dubai.
Ashleigh Baxter, Nicole Cronin, Aoife Doyle, Kim Flood, Stacey Flood, Alison Miller, captain Lucy Mulhall, Amee-Leigh Murphy-Crowe and Megan Williams all keep their places in the squad.
“First of all it's great to be back on the World Rugby Women's Sevens Series this season, having claimed our place at the repechage in UCD during the summer. Re-claiming our place is really important to the continued development of the Women's Sevens programme here in Ireland,” said IRFU Director of Sevens Rugby Anthony Eddy.
“We're in possibly the toughest group in Dubai, with New Zealand, France and Fiji, however the players have had a very positive pre-season. They have worked hard in the gym and on the training pitch and we had some challenge games with the French and English, so now the team are looking forward to getting the series underway and are looking into putting in a good performance in Dubai.”
New Black Ferns Sevens coach Allan Bunting has selected seven Olympic silver medallists in his squad.
Bunting, who was only appointed at the beginning of November, will look to those medallists – captain Sarah Goss, Ruby Tui, Shakira Baker, Niall Williams, Tyla Nathan-Wong, Kelly Brazier and Portia Woodman – to provide the experienced core to his squad.
For Woodman and Brazier it will mean a quick switch from 15s to sevens as they are currently with the Black Ferns on a three-test tour in Europe.
Bunting has named two debutants in his 12-strong squad in exciting teenager Tenika Willison and Rebekah Cordero-Tufuga, with another two as travelling reserves in Jess Drummond and Danielle Paenga for a tournament that will see New Zealand face Fiji, France and Ireland in Pool B.
“2016 has been a good year for the Black Ferns Sevens,” said Bunting. “We won silver at the Rio Olympics and were runners up in the last World Rugby Women’s Sevens Series. The team has a lot to be proud about over the last four years and has helped inspire record numbers of women and girls to take up playing rugby.
“Dubai kicks off our new journey to the Tokyo Olympics in 2020. There is a real sense of excitement and we can’t wait to get going.
“Having sevens introduced as an Olympic sport has changed the game. It means we now operate on a four-year preparation cycle and it has created a new pathway for athletes to become Olympians.”
For Bunting the 2016-17 series is about building the foundations for long-term success.
“We are building a player-led culture where everyone enjoys themselves and in turn plays great rugby. Our team focus for Dubai is kaha and whakawhetai – courage and gratitude. We want to front the challenge and learn from what we do and be grateful for the opportunity we have each day and represent our country with pride.
"It's exciting that super-boot Kelly Brazier and World Sevens Series top try scorer Portia Woodman will be joining the squad at the conclusion of the Black Ferns northern tour. This highlights the collaboration between the sevens and 15s programmes and the ability for players to move between the two, adding value to both.
“It is great that we are able to give Tenika, Rebekah, Jess and Danielle exposure to international experience in Dubai. Building to a pinnacle event like the Olympics requires previous experience in the national team environment and feeling comfortable playing on the world stage.”
Only weeks after making her 15s test debut for France, Rose Thomas is one of six Olympians named by France coach David Courteix for the opening round of the HSBC World Rugby Women's Sevens Series 2016-17, the Emirates Airline Dubai Rugby Sevens on 1-2 December.
Thomas and Camille Grassineau both played for Les Bleues against England at the Twickenham Stoop earlier this month, but return to sevens duty for the series opener alongside four other players - captain Fanny Horta, Lina Guerin, Marjorie Mayans and Pauline Biscarat - who helped France to finish sixth at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games in August.
Alongside this experienced core of players are series newcomers Caroline Boujard, Mathilde Coutouly and Carla Neissen, while Montserrat Amedee is back in the squad for the first time since Dubai last year and Joanna Sainlo will play her second tournament and first since Dubai 2013.
Les Bleues are bidding to reach the semi-finals in Dubai for the third year in a row, having finished fourth in both 2014 and 2015.
Fijiana coach Iliesa Tanivula has announced the 13-strong squad for the opening round of the series with Ana Maria Roqica continuing as captain. Despite the distractions of possible World Cup qualification, the FRU have kept their sevens stars firmly focused on the shorter game.
Fresh from their runners-up finish to Olympic champions Australia in the Oceania Rugby Sevens Championship on home soil earlier this month, the Fijiana squad features seven players from Rio 2016, where they finished eighth to match their final placing in the 2015-16 series.
Fijiana, who reached the quarter-finals in Dubai last year, will have plenty of experience from the likes of Roqica, Rusila Nagasau, Lavenia Tinai, Tima Tamoi (pictured above) and Viniana Riwai in their ranks as they look to overcome New Zealand, France and Ireland in Pool B in the desert.
New Zealand squad: Ruby Tui, Shakira Baker, Jordon Webber, Niall Williams, Sarah Goss (captain), Michaela Blyde, Tyla Nathan-Wong, Kelly Brazier, Tenika Willison, Katarina Whata-Simpkins, Portia Woodman, Rebekah Cordero-Tufuga.
Ireland squad: Ashleigh Baxter, Nicole Cronin, Aoife Doyle, Katie Fitzhenry, Kim Flood, Stacey Flood, Alison Miller, Lucy Mulhall (captain), Emma Murphy, Amee-Leigh Murphy-Crowe, Hannah Tyrrell, Megan Williams
France squad: Montserrat Amedee, Pauline Biscarat, Caroline Boujard, Mathilde Coutouly, Laürelin Fourcade, Camille Grassineau, Lina Guerin, Fanny Horta (captain), Marjorie Mayans, Carla Neissen, Joanna Sainlo, Rose Thomas.
Fijiana squad: Miriama Naiobasali, Rusila Nagasau, Merewai Cumu, Tima Tamoi, Pricilla Siata, Adi Wainikiti Naselesele, Ana Maria Roqica (captain), Tima Ravisa, Viniana Riwai, Lavenia Tinai, Asena Yalewalili, Ana Maria Naimasi, Raijeli Daveua.
Canada, England, Spain, Brazil
With Jen Kish missing through injury, Ghislaine Landry will captain an experienced Canada squad in Dubai featuring nine of their Olympic bronze medallists.
Nine Olympic bronze medallists have been named in Canada's squad in all.
Ghislaine Landry, who scored two tries in an 18-point haul in their bronze medal match victory over Great Britain at Rio 2016, will take over the captaincy not only in Dubai but for the whole of the 2016-17 series with Kayla Moleschi and Bianca Farella taking more of a leadership role in support.
While Canada will field nine medallists at The Sevens Stadium in Landry, Britt Benn, Hannah Darling, Farella, Megan Lukan, Moleschi, Ashley Steacy, Natascha Watcham-Roy and Charity Williams, they have lost the vast experience of Kelly Russell and Karen Paquin who have left the sevens programme and are currently in Europe playing for the 15s side along with former sevens players Magali Harvey and Elissa Alarie.
"The big goal for us this first year of the new quad is to build upon the depth we have to ensure we can continue to compete long-term with the other top teams," explained coach John Tait, whose side finished third in the 2015-16 series. "We have had some turnover from Rio but have been grooming the younger squad members to be ready to now step up into those roster spots.
"We need to use the series this season to develop them under the pressure it provides and put us in a good position to contest for another World Cup at the end of next season and, of course, beyond to Tokyo 2020. I am pretty confident we will remain competitive this season and stay in the top four with the returning players and the leadership in the group we have retained."
Canada will play England, Brazil and Spain in Pool C in Dubai, an event they are yet to reach the final at in four series visits to the desert venue.
"We want to get off on the right foot and be competitive and always have the expectation we can compete for the cup, but in the big picture Dubai is an opportunity to gauge where we are now in regards to where we will likely need to be to contest for the World Cup in two year's time.
"The team going is as fast and as skilled as we have ever fielded previously, along with the ability to potentially play in different positions more so than what we have had in the past. So that will hopefully give other teams real challenges in matching up with us as we develop and improve our tactics throughout this season."
England coach Simon Middleton has named a new-look squad.
With a number of sevens stalwarts focusing on 15s with Women’s Rugby World Cup 2017 only nine months away, Middleton has selected five members of the Team GB squad in new captain Abbie Brown, Heather Fisher, Alice Richardson, Jo Watmore and Amy Wilson-Hardy.
Those Olympians, who finished fourth at Rio 2016, are joined by five players who will make their series debuts in Dubai on 1-2 December in Lauren Cattell, Deborah Fleming, Katie Mason, Kelly Smith and Millie Wood.
“Our focus this season is very much to qualify for the 2018 World Cup through the HSBC World Rugby Women’s Sevens Series,” insisted Middleton, who will be supported by former England sevens player James Bailey in Dubai.
“We have a mix of new players and returning Olympians within the squad. It is important that we invest game time with the new players as tournament experience is critical if we are going to be competitive on the world’s biggest stages down the line.
“The squad has been working hard to become physically conditioned to play sevens and we look forward to getting the world series underway.”
With the smallest pool of players for any WSWS country that has also qualified for the World Cup, Spain are going to find the next few months a real challenge. That said, they have risen to several massive challenges in 2016 and passed them all, getting to Rio in the playoff, reaching the quarter-finals, and then switching to fifteens to beat Scotland to a place in the World Cup only days before this tournament.
Spain trialed a whole new group of players for the sevens while their leading stars were involed in the fifteens qualifier games with Scotland, but in the end have largely returned to familiar faces for Dubai - only Olivia Fresneda moving up from the trial group to the main squad.
The Spanish repeatedly missed out on quarter-finals last year as the third-best third-place team and will be hoping that the luck goes their way more often this season
Brazil start their first World Series as a core team with a new coach - New Zealander Reuben Samuel from Waikato, where he has a good record in provincial rugby.
With less funding and no home round, now that the Olympic train have moved on, Brazil will also have few favours offered to them and will have to fight for their place in the World Series in a battle to avoid relegation that is likely to be as interesting and as close as that for the title. Despite having a number of talented players its going to be tough, though the World Cup distractions of some opponents may be to their advantage.
Canada squad: Britt Benn, Hannah Darling, Bianca Farella, Julia Greenshields, Sara Kaljuvee, Ghislaine Landry (captain), Megan Luke, Kayla Moleschi, Beanne Nicholas, Ashley Steacy, Natasha Watcham-Roy, Charity Williams
England squad: Natasha Brennan, Abbie Brown (captain), Lauren Cattell, Heather Fisher, Deborah Fleming, Katie Mason, Fran Matthews, Alice Richardson, Kelly Smith, Jo Watmore, Amy Wilson-Hardy, Millie Wood.
Spain squad: Marina Bravo, Enara Cacho, Maria Casado, Iera Echebarria, Amaia Erbina, Anne Fernandez, Olivia Fresneda, Patricia Garcia, Paula Medin, Barbara Pla, anna Ramon, Maria Ribera
Brazil: Amanda “Amandinha” Araújo – Niterói (RJ); Beatriz “Baby” Futuro – Niterói (RJ); Bianca “Bia” Santos – São José (SP); Cleice Costa Lopes – São José (SP); Edna “Edninha” Santini – São José (SP); Haline “Halo” Leme – Curitiba (PR); Isadora “Izzy” Cerullo – Niterói (RJ); Lariane “Lari” Prunner – Desterro (SC); Luiza Campos – Charrua (RS); Maíra Bravo – SPAC (SP); Mariana “Marianinha” Nicolau – São José (SP); Raquel Kochhann – Charrua (RS)