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European Grand Prix Preview

The European Grand Prix Sevens series starts this weekend in Malemort, France, with two places in the World Cup at stake,

A tough year for European teams in the World Series means that only Spain (who qualified as a semi-finalist in 2013) and Russia are certain of a place in the World Cup in San Francisco next year. France and England will fight it out for the final spot in Clermont next weekend, with France currently holding the advantage.

Just two more places are reserved for European teams, so World Series teams England (or France) and Ireland and nations with a significant World Cup heritage – such as Netherlands and Italy will have a fight on their hands.

With the World Cup very likely act as the promotion route for the 2018/19 World Series, missing out on qualification will also shut the door on any hopes for a place in the Series before the end of 2019 at the earliest. The prospect of two more years in the wilderness could end some careers, and limit sponsorship opportunities.

In short, the stakes are high.

Pool A:

Russia have been – by some margin – Europe’s most consistent team all year. Despite changes in the coaching staff and long term injuries to key players, Russia have reached the quarter-finals in all five rounds of the World Series, where they currently lie fourth, 12 points clear of France and 22 ahead of England, which means that their place in San Francisco is assured.

Russia could have relaxed and given key players a week off ahead of Clermont but the squad selected by the current champions looks as strong, making Russia clear favourites for another title (they have won three out of the last four).

Squad: Darya Bobkova (RSUTS-Moscow); Arina Bystrov (RSUTS-Moscow); Anna Gavrylyuk (RSUTS-Moscow); Marina Kukina (RSUTS-Moscow); Darya Noritsina (RSUTS-Moscow); Marina Petrova (RSUTS-Moscow); Ljudmila Artamonova (Yenissei-STM); Elena Zdrokova (Yenissei-STM); Anna Minislamova (Yenissei-STM); Alain Mihaltsova (Yenissei-STM); Maria Perestyak (Yenissei-STM); Snezana Kulkova (Krasny Yar); Bayzat Khamidov (Krasny Yar); Darya Lushina (RTSSP by ITT)

Spain are also certain of a place in San Francisco. What they are not certain of is a place in next year’s World Series, so can be expected to put Clermont ahead of Malemort in their priorities.

Going by recent results in the World Series it may seem surprising that Spain reached the last four of the World Cup in 2013. But Spain were, for a long time, second only to England when it came to European sevens. Champions twice, runners-up three-times between 2003 and 2012, they reached four consecutive finals between 2009 and 2012.

Since 2012 it has perhaps not so much been Spain falling behind as much as failing to keep up with their main rivals, as France, England, Russia and Ireland taking the sevens format far more seriously than they had before, including spending for much more money.

Yet the Spanish can still one of the big teams in this tournament. They were third in 2015 – ahead of England – and, as a World Series team, really should be competing for a place in the semi-finals.

Netherlands took part in the World Series last month as a guest team – their first taste of life at the top for a couple of years. They lost all five games, which was no surprise as this is almost invariably the fate of guest sides, but it was also an indication of how far the Dutch have slipped behind since they were relegated. Even so that experience will have been a great help and the Dutch really they should reach the quarter-finals. All they will need to do is achieve good results against Russia and Spain, and beat Poland comfortably.

Most recently a near full strength team - playing as "Windmills" - performed well in the Amsterdam Sevens, only eventually losing to higher ranked (and eventual finalists) Wales and China in the vital pool games on both days, and also reached the final of the Centrale 7s, losing only to a strong French Development team.

However the Dutch tendency to lose crucial games against opponents they really should defeat remains a constant – the loss to Belgium in the World Series qualifier quarter-final in Hong Kong this year being the most recent example. If progress came down to their having to record a strong win over Poland in this pool then rankings and records could be irrelevent. 

Squad: Pleuni Kievit (C) (Rugby Club the Dukes); Anne Hielckert (VC) (AAC Rugby); Annemarije van Rossum (All Blues); Amy Stolk (Rugby Club Delft); Bodil van Wijnbergen (All Blues); Erin Arends (RFC Haarlem); Famke Deelstra (Rugby Club the Bassets); Jannick IJdens (-); Linde van der Velden (Castricumse Rugby Club); Marit Bakker (Rugby Club Delft); Nikki Weyers (AAC Rugby); Segou Jonkers (AAC Rugby)

Poland

Former “emerging nation” Poland were the surprise package of the European Trophy last year, beating Germany three times as they pipped Scotland to a promotion spot and reach their highest ever ranking in European sevens.

Recent results suggest they could cause more surprises. Poland are regulars at Amsterdam and had one of their best-ever weekends, only falling to Wales one step from the final after topping their pools on both days, running in 30 tries in six games with big wins over the Czech Republic and two strong German regional selections. Though the World Series teams may be too strong, any other sides Poland come up against should not underestimate them.

Squad: Laura Abucewicz (Biało-Zielone Ladies Gdańsk) ; Marta Jarecka (Juvenia Kraków)  ; Karolina Jaszczyszyn (Biało-Zielone Ladies Gdańsk) ; Kinga Karlińska (Diablice Ruda Śląska) ; Anna Klichowska (Biało-Zielone Ladies Gdańsk) ; Agnieszka Kowalczyk (Black Roses Posnania Poznań); Hanna Maliszewska (Biało-Zielone Ladies Gdańsk) ; Marlena Mroczyńska (Biało-Zielone Ladies Gdańsk) ; Katarzyna Paszczyk (Black Roses Posnania Poznań); Angelika Piekorz (Diablice Ruda Śląska) ; Monika Pietrzak (Biało-Zielone Ladies Gdańsk) ; Julianna Schuster (Biało-Zielone Ladies Gdańsk)

Pool B

France

Runners-up twice and winners once in the past three years, France will be in the running for the title again this year, not least because they are currently the second ranked European team in the World Series, reaching the semi-finals in Langford.

However there are distractions. One is France’s battle with England for the final automatic World Cup place open to World Series teams. 10 points clear of England, they are clear favourites to win the fourth qualification spot, in which case this series will be less important. The other distraction is the fifteens World Cup in Ireland. As that is the major priority this summer none of the fifteens squad are likely to be available for this series.

The squad selected, while not full sttength, contains plenty of experience with four members of the XVs World Cup squad included, and overall roughly half of the team from the last round of the World Series. They will be in the semi-finals, and probably battling England or Ireland for a place in the final.

Squad: Montserrat Amedee (Montpellier RC / FFR); Coralie Bertrand (Stade Toulousain); Anne-Cécile Ciofani (AC Bobigny 93); Läurelin Fourcade (Stade Français Paris); Lina Guerin (AS Marcoussis); Clémence Gueucier (AC Bobigny 93); Fanny Horta (FFR); Shannon Izar (Lille MRCV); Caroline Ladagnous (AC Bobigny 93 / FFR); Jade Le Pesq (Stade Rennais); Amélie Mugnier (Blagnac Saint-Orens); Jennifer Troncy (Montpellier RC / FFR)

Wales

Wales will be delighted to be back in this tournament as Wales, having had to given up their place last years to the “Great Britain 2” team in lead-up to the Olympics (though in the second leg that team was entirely Welsh). Wales – championship winners in 2007 – have the potential to match what Ireland have achieved in sevens and, after a good performance in the Amsterdam Sevens, will fancy their chances of snatching one of the World Cup spots, as well as confirming their place in next year’s Commonwealth Games (where all they need to do is avoid relegation).

If they and Ireland finish runners-up in their pools, the two teams will meet in a massively significant quarter-final on Sunday. Ireland – as the World Series team - will start favourites in that game, but the Welsh should not be underestimated. If any team can pull off a surprise this weekend it will be Wales.

And you sense Wales will not be satisfied with finishing second in this pool. They won the invitational tournament in Dubai at the end of last year, and their performance in Amsterdam - where they swept all before them, including big wins over a Dutch national selection and Poland, before falling to China 38-12 in the final - suggests that they could go do even better.

The squad selected certainly shows they mean business. Sian Williams will captain the side, which features several mainstays of Wales' fifteens team in the likes of Dyddgu Hywel and Elinor Snowsill, as well as sevens specialists such as Jasmine Joyce and Sinead Breeze.

"We've got a very close group, where the players are familiar with each other from playing either sevens or fifteens together in national colours," says coach Nick Wakley. "That cohesion has started to show in our last few outings. We'd like to get this Rugby Europe campaign off to a strong start, and I'm confident we've got the players to help us achieve that."

Squad: 1 Sian Williams (c) ; 2 Shona Powell-Hughes; 3 Dyddgu Hywel; 4 Gemma Rowland; 5 Jodie Evans; 6 Rhiannon Parker; 7 Keira Bevan; 8 Elinor Snowsill; 9 Hannah Jones; 10 Philippa Tuttiett; 11 Sinead Breeze; 12 Jasmine Joyce; 

Belgium

Often underestimated, Belgium are the appropriately-coloured dark horses of the tournament and showed what they are capable of when they reached the semi-finals in the World Series play-off in Hong Kong earlier this year. It should have been no surprise given the experienced players from the French Top 8 in their squad, players who have lifted the French club sevens title on more than one occasion.

This will be major tournament for a new coaching team - Xavier Bossert and Renaud Labardant - who went back to basics when they started in April, inviting the best players from all three national club divisions to a selection camp, whether or not they had been in previous squads. Their long term target is winning places at the World Cup (15s and 7s). This will be their first big test.

As a warm up, Belgium missed Amsterdam and instead concentarted on the Centrale 7s where they finished third, winning their pool ahead of Ukraine and Portugal before going down narrowly to the national Dutch "Windmills" selection in the semi-finals. it was a good warm-up that will have built even more confidence. The quarter-finals should be well within their grasp, though getting beyond that may prove to be more challenging.

Sweden

Sweden are back at the top table again after some years of decline after reaching a peak at the 2010 World Cup. Comfortable winners of the European Trophy last year, beating Scotland and the Ukraine along the way, Sweden’s main target will be consolidating their place in the Grand Prix – something they are quite capable of achieving.

The Swedes were another Amsterdam semi-finalists last month, losing only to eventual winners China. They had a fortunate draw - the only other national selection they faced was Norway - but nonetheless it was a condidence builder. The Swedes also come into this with their main home season just starting, rather than after its end, which may also be an advantage. 

Squad: 1.Emilia Kristiansson (c) - RHC Cougars; 2.Rebecca Kearney - Stade Toulousain; 3.Victoria Pettersson - Kalmar Södra IF Rugby; 4. Emma Skagerlind - Anyang RK; 5.Ylva Schwartz - Kalmar Södra IF Rugby; 6.Carina Trinh - Stockholm Exiles; 7.Elisabeth Sonnenholzner - Lugi Lions RC; 8.Sara Jacobsson - Malmö RC; 9.Minnona Nunstedt - Vanersborg RK; 10.Tova Derk - Stockholm Exiles; 11.Sanna Vestman - Stockholm Exiles; 12.Emelie Hellgren - Uppsala RFCU 

Pool C

England’s target this year was to win a Sevens World Cup spot from the World Series, this avoiding the need to scrap for a place in this tournament and concentrate on the summer’s fifteens World Cup.

After a great start in the World Series Dubai things have not gone their way. Giving the test team priority, especially during the Six Nations, contributed to England missing out on the quarter-finals for the first time ever in Sydney, then doing the same thing again in Las Vegas. Improvements in Kitakyushu were then followed by more disappointing results in Langford.

With Abbie Brown unavailable through injury (hamstring), the squad includes uncapped England Sevens development player Olivia Jones. Bristol second row Jones has represented England U20 five times, including their two most recent games against France in March. The remaining 11 players have all appeared on the HSBC World Rugby Women's Sevens Series already this season.

 “This is a strong squad of players who have gained valuable experience on the world circuit over the course of the season," said coach James Bailey. “It is vitally important that we perform well in this two-leg Series to earn qualification for the World Cup next year and we will be looking to make a positive start this weekend.”

Squad: Natasha Brennan; Katie Mason; Alice Richardson-Watmore; Millie Wood; Olivia Jones; Deborah Fleming; Heather Fisher; Kelly Smith; Lotte Clapp; Jo Richardson-Watmore; Holly Aitchison; Chantelle Miell

Ireland have had a good World Series, with three quarter-finals, and will have derived great pleasure and confidence from their first win over England in Langford. On paper they should be, with England, favourites to win a World Cup spot with probably only Wales likely to be a significant threat over the two legs.

Anthony Eddy, has named a squad for both Malemort and Clermont. All 12 players who took to the pitch at the Langford 7s in Canada last month are included, while Megan Williams also returns to the squad and UCD's Anna McGann, who was the 13th squad member in Canada, will win her first senior Ireland Sevens cap should she make the matchday squad. 

"We have a busy two weeks ahead of us in France, with two big tournaments coming up. The Grand Prix Series will be very important for us this season as we look to secure a place at next year's World Cup," Anthony Eddy said. "Our focus is very much on the Malemort tournament this weekend, and although the last stage of the World Series is just around the corner in Clermont, it's very much about getting the Grand Prix off to a good start."

Squad: Ashleigh Baxter (Cooke/Ulster); Chloe Blackmore (St. Mary's/Munster); Claire Keohane (UL Bohemians/Munster); Stacey Flood (Railway Union/Leinster); Kim Flood (Railway Union/Leinster); Louise Galvin (UL Bohemians/Munster); Katie Heffernan (Mullingar/Railway Union (dual status)/Leinster); Anna McGann (UCD/Leinster); Lucy Mulhall (Rathdrum/Leinster) (capt); Amee-Leigh Murphy Crowe (Railway Union/Munster); Sene Naoupu (Aylesford Bulls); Audrey O'Flynn (Ireland Sevens Programme); Hannah Tyrrell (Old Belvedere/Leinster); Megan Williams (St. Mary's)

Italy were arguably fortunate to go to the World Series promotion playoff (Wales only missing out due to playing as Great Britain in 2016), but took full advantage of the opportunity to surprise everyone and make the final four – probably their best ever sevens result since reaching the final of this competition in 2004.

There is much talk of Sevens World Cup quaification, but Italy have never invested as much in their sevens programme as most of the other Six Nations teams, and - despite a talented squad - start from a long way behind. They should comfortably retain their spot in the Grand Prix, but with players (and coaching staff) from their fifteens squad they will also be balancing this with preparations for this summer’s World Cup. 

Squad: Sara Barattin (Initiatives - Villorba Rugby); Lucia Cammarano (Rugby Monza 1949); Manuela Furlan (Aylesford Bulls, England); Silvia Gaudino (Rugby Monza 1949); Elisa Giordano (Valsugana Rugby Padua); Isabella Locatelli (Rugby Monza 1949); Maria Magatti (Rugby Monza 1949); Aura Muzzo Aura (Pordenone Rugby); Veronica Schiavon (Phoenix RC Tokyo, Japan); Michela Sillari (Aylesford Bulls, England); Sofia Stefan (Stade Rennais Rugby, France); Cecilia Zublena (Stade Rennais Rugby, France) 

Portugal are the great upset team – most famously ending Dutch hopes of going to Rio a couple of years ago – but have slipped down the rankings more recently, perhaps as their main opponents have gained improved funding and support.

Fifth place at the Centrale 7s was a good performance, including two excellent wins over South African invitational team the Tuks, and also Tunisia, though the game they lost to the Ukraine 24-12 is perhaps the best guide to their European standings.

Squad: Antónia Braga Martins (Sporting CP); Daniela Correia  (SC Porto ); Elsa Santos  (SC Porto); Inês Marques  (Sporting CP); Inês Spínola Duarte (RC Bairrada); Jéssica Lopes Silva (Aeesa Coimbra); Leonor Amaral  (Sporting CP); Maria Heitor (Lille (France)); Mariana Marques  (Aeesa Coimbra); Sara Jéssica Silva (RC Tondela); Sara Saúde Silva (Sporting CP); Susana Monteiro  (GDS Cascais)