Norway. Land of fjords and innovative women’s rugby videos takes women’s sevens where it’s never been before this weekend as the FIRA’s European Sevens Division “A” Championship arrives in Bergen – the most northerly city ever to host international women’s rugby. We look at the competition to join Europe’s elite.
If the FIRA’s Division “A” championship overruns a little this weekend it’s unlikely that floodlights will be needed. This time of the year sunset in Bergen – the host city for Norway’s first international rugby tournament – is not until after 11pm. The excitement within Norway’s small rugby community is also palpable as they also celebrate 50 years of rugby in the country, the first club being formed in Oslo in 1964, with this competition the centrepiece of their celebrations
If they can get past the enthusiastic welcome that awaits them, the twelve teams have some serious rugby ahead of them, with a very serious prize. The two finalists will be promoted to next year’s Top 12 – a tournament that will double as the continent’s Olympic qualifier, and it is the teams relegated last year who start as favourties.
The first of these – and top seeds - are the Ukraine, who were relegated having finished 11th in the Top 12 last season, a setback after an unprecedented rise had taken them from bottom of European sevens to the top in only four years. Last year a combination of injuries, a lack of fitness sufficient to play two tournaments on back-to-back weekends, and a ten hour road journey to Brive were all blamed for an distinctly under-par performance by a team that many had predicted to finish in the top five.
An alternative suggestion is that the style of play used by the Ukrainians had failed to keep with the increased physicality found at the highest level – the rapidly evolving “collision sport” that Dutch coach Chris Lane described for us in his interview earlier this week. The Ukraine had the skill and speed, but had problems coping with the sheer power of the top teams – a theory that is supported by an injury count in second tournament that meant that in the end they barely had enough players to form a team.
Most of Ukraine’s players come from the west of the country, especially Kiev, and so they should not been greatly affected by the political problems faced by the country. Finance remains a challenge – as with all teams at this level – but they were able to attend the recent Centrale Sevens in Paris where they lost heavily to Top 12 team Germany, but ran Tunisia close and beat a Belgian development team. Again lead by the outstanding Olga Blanutsa, how much they have learnt from last year remains to be seen – but their sheer speed and handling skills should put them in a very good position to reach the final – so long as they do not attempt to drive all the way to Bergen!
Also dropping down into the “A” Division were Scotland. Without the benefit of any warm-up tournaments they seemed to taken aback by the standard of competition in the Top 12 last year, where they failed to win a game. It was a disappointing performance as, with the benefit of more intensive preparations, they had finished 10th the year before in the World Cup qualifier.
Scotland seem to have learnt some lessons from this setback and preparations this year have been slightly better, though still restricted to two training and selection weekends last month, and the sending of a “Scotland Select” team at the Rugby Rocks tournament, where they won they plate all the while insisting that they were not the Scotland team!
Despite this they are a team full of talent, including the one player who is on everyone’s lips when there is talk about which non-English players might make a GB Olympic team – Steph Johnston – but in addition they can call on players such as Nicola Halfpenny, Annabel Sergeant and Lindsay Wheeler. On paper at least, as long as they do not underestimate their opposition, they should be strong enough to at least reach the final in Bergen.
However they will not have it all their own way. The third seed, and top seed in Pool C, are the Czech Republic, who have always featured near the top of Division A but have never quite managed to get over the line to win promotion – apart from 2008 when they were awarded a place in that year’s World cup qualifier following Scotland’s withdrawal. This year they have the distraction of their first foray into the fifteen-a-side European Championship, with a qualification fixture against Switzerland at the end of the month. Even so the Czechs are hugely experienced at Sevens and confidently expect to reach the quarter-finals at the very least, and should proceed further – after which everything will depend on the draw. A good outside bet for promotion
Poland are fourth seeds, and also avoid the big two pool in the stages. Another side that is growing though the ranks of European sevens, they have always been one of the stronger “emerging nations”, although this year preparations have been slightly disrupted by their hosting of the FIRA’s U18 (men’s) championship which meant that they were unable to attend the Emerging Nations camp in Hungary. Nonetheless they were at Amsterdam, are well prepared and should make at least the final eight.
Moldova and Switzerland have both been regular participants in the Top 12 in the past, but the arrival of Scotland, Wales and Ireland in European Sevens has pushed them into the lower tier. Drawn in Scotland and Ukraine’s pools respectively they should both make the final eight and given a favourable draw they could go further than that.
Elsewhere it becomes an ever more unpredictable battle between teams of very similar strength and background. The final pool games between Romania and Norway, Croatia and Finland, and Georgia and Denmark promise to be high stakes games – practically knock-out games with a quarter-final place for some, and a day two of tension and drama in the Bowl for others – with the prospect of relegation for two. In all cases a Scandinavian crowd can be expected to be backing the theoretical underdog in each case, though there is so little to choose between them all that the term is not really applicable. Of the six, Georgia and Norway have been working the hardest on the pre-competition sevens circuit and will perhaps be the more confident and best prepared. But anything could happen and, at this level, probably will.
The full match schedule can be found on a superb tournament website (it is tempting to hope that Norway do well if only so that they can stage more compeitions in the future!). There will also be live steaming.