The World Sevens finds a new home this weekend – but a home very familiar to top level Women’s Sevens.
The World Series rolls into Las Vegas this weekend, arguably four years late. Few venues have a longer history of women’s international sevens than Las Vegas, where an exhibition game between USA and Canada in 2006 was the start of an annual tournament that grew in size and prestige until the World Series came along in 2013 - and took the tournament first to Houston and then Atlanta before finally coming back to the spiritual home of US Sevens.
In doing so it also creates the third “double header” with a round of the men’s series, after Dubai and Sydney. What is more Las Vegas also achieves something that Dubai and Sydney have failed to achieve so far, shuffling the men’s and women’s tournaments in order to allow for all of the games in both tournaments to take place in the main stadium.
And the shock results of day two in Sydney have resulted in some very interesting pool draws. However, one result is that Australia and New Zealand are all-but guaranteed to avoid each other on Day Two, potentially until the final. That said, this year’s series has been full of surprises. Las Vegas is unlikely to be any different.
Canada come to Las Vegas with ten of the 12 who won in Sydney. Caroline Crossley and Sara Kaljuvee replacing Julia Greenshields and Ashley Steacy.
“Ashley is a part of her sister’s wedding so understandably unavailable to go,” explains coach John Tait. “Everyone has been training well so it was a tough selection but there is a lot of physicality and versatility within this team selection. Caroline has been consistently good in the practice and scrimmages so I’m looking forward to watching her compete in Vegas.”
Can Canada win back-to-back sevens for the first time? “We always believe in our ability to contest for the cup in every tournament and that is the goal for Las Vegas. Although we won in Sydney the team identified areas we can improve on and know we will have to be better again to get another result.”
Russia and France will present a challenge, but Canada should make the quarter-finals comfortably.
France ended Sydney as Europe’s top team, after the continent’s representatives had a disastrous second day. For a young and inexperienced team lacking most of their big names from Rio it was an outcomes that probably exceeded expectations.
France also lie a point ahead of England in the what is currently the final automatic qualification place for the Sevens World Cup.
“We learned a lot in Sydney and we tried to get a lot out of that experience”, says coach David Courteix. “We unearthed an effective defensive formation, a fairly powerful backline, and an outcome and performance that gives hope for the future. We need to must be more incisive when attacking, but we are working on it. We learn every time we go out."
After their performance, Courteix rewards his young team with another chance to prove themselves. Ten of the 12 from Sydney, with just Elodie Guiglion and Jennifer Troncy joining the team.
Russia are the leading European team in the World Series, in fifth place after a great Dubai and a seventh in Sydney. Kudinova is still missing this weekend, but Russia, under new coach Audrey Kuzin, are demonstrating a new depth of talent, recording good performances in the opening rounds despite missing big names. Instead Elena Zdrokova and Alena Mikhaltsova have stepped very effectively into the breach.
The key game will be with France – their biggest European rivals, who they invariably meet in European Sevens finals – with the outcome probably deciding a quarter-final spot. But this is a team full of confidence who are capable of beating anyone.
Finally, in Pool A Argentina return to the World Series for the first time since 2013, when they failed to score a point against teams from outside South America and the Caribbean. They have the advantage of coming into the tournament match fit from the South American Sevens last month, where they qualified for this event by finishing runners-up, but an outcome similar to 2013 seems likely as they were comfortably second to Brazil in that tournament, and Brazil are currently bottom of the standings in this year’s series.
Coach Daniel Villén is certainly realistic, acknowledging that their target for Vegas is less winning matches than enjoying game-time and leaning from the far more experienced opponents they will face.
“We want to move from development rugby to high performance and in this process playing in tournaments such as Las Vegas and Hong Kong are very important for us,” explained Villén. “It will give us an idea of the standards we need to aim for. We are far from the best, but we will get a new horizon. The plan is to use the structures in place to grow the women’s game at home, get more girls at our high performance centres and reach the standard of Brazil, the leaders in our region.”
Villén played international sevens with men’s coach Santiago Gómez Cora and the two teams has a joint training session in Las Vegas this week. “It was very good for us as we shared their training methods and ways, which put us in good stead ahead of two days of very tough competition,” admitted Villén.
The United States stand out as a team that loves playing in front of a home crowd. England, Canada, Australia and France have all under-performed on home soil, but not the Americans who seem to save up their best performances for the home round. With a remarkable Sydney also under their belt the USA are well-set to delight their supporters.
"There's going to be a lot of expectations with the home tournament," says coach Ritchie Walker said. "We just have to play game to game and take it day by day. Our staff are preparing for all of the distractions that might occur."
Alev Kelter returns as captain, having taken on the role in Sydney. “Alev really wants to work hard and be a good teammate for her team," Walker said of his captain. "Naming her captain for Australia, as we saw, kind of brought her game alive a bit more; the Alev Kelter of old we're used to. She's such a great person and always has ideas and is thinking of things to make the team better. She brings that off the field as captain, as well. She's always involved with the players."
Most of the team from Sydney return, with Naya Tapper the player to watch if she can repeat her performance in Sydney, where she achieved the almost unheard of accolade of winning the Player of the Final award despite being on the losing side. However, Nicole Snyder makes her debut and Bulou Mataitoga returns.
Fiji may at last have achieved the level of performance that everyone suspected lay within them. Inconsistency for so many years has now been replaced by back-to-back 5th places – Plate winners, if such still existed. A year ago Fiji were looking over their shoulder at possible relegation. Now an automatic place in the Sevens World Cup looks very achievable.
Coach Iliesa Tanivula keeps most of his Sydney team, but has also selected two new players, Aloesi Nakoci and Vasiti Solikoviti.
“Our preparations have all been about our work in defence and our decision-making in contact and the response has been positive from the girls,” Tanivula said. “The two new girls play for Nadi Blazers and they have got on well with the team on and off the field. Nakoci comes in to replace Viniana Riwai who unfortunately got injured in Sydney and this will be an opportunity for her to show why she has been selected. She comes in with a lot speed and is really fit. Solikoviti is a forward and comes in as our 13th player for exposure at top level. She is also fit and is tall and quick. She has been learning the ropes and has been responding well.”
Ireland caused headlines by selecting three of their top players for this tournament instead of the Six Nations. The result is – as in Sydney – a team that, on paper, potentially disputes with Russia as Europe’s strongest team. In Sydney they had a great first day, but failed to take advantage of that and lost every game on day two. As a result Ireland lie in the bottom three and need a good performance in Las Vegas to cement their position in next year’s World Series.
Coach Anthony Eddy said: "The team is progressing well and having finished ninth in Dubai and eighth in Sydney, there is a strong desire to build on these achievements. There has been a quicker turn around than usual, with Sydney taking place just three weeks ago, so we're conscious that they players involved have recovered and are fit and ready to go for Las Vegas. We've been drawn with the hosts USA, Fiji and Spain, so while it will be a pool with teams we are familiar with, it will be a big challenge and everyone will need to be on top form for each game."
Finally Spain, who – despite being able to concentrate on the sevens with no other distractions – have had two very poor tournaments so far, with 10th and 11th places, that leave them even closer than Ireland to a potential fall from the series – an outcome that should be unthinkable for the Olympic quarter-finalists and Europe’s top team at the last World Cup.
It’s been a tough start for new sevens coach Eusebio Quevedo, and he shuffles his pack again with a squad that includes three players in their 30s balanced with four teenagers. Overall the squad includes five players - Pla, Ribera, Garcia, Casado and Echebarria - each of whom has played in as many tournaments as all of the rest of the squad put together.
Spain desperately need a quarter-final spot – and, despite being the bottom seeds in the pool, the draw means it is not an impossible target.
New Zealand head up possibly the toughest single pool in women’s sevens history. The Ferns sit atop the series after their win in Dubai and third place in Sydney , and will be looking to continue with that form. 11 return from Sydney, with Cheyelle Robins-Reti making her debut.
“Our goals for Las Vegas are consistency and continuity. When the team plays with their heart and smarts they have proven to be hard to beat; we need to ensure that we bring that focus to every game,” said Head Coach Allan Bunting. “The selections provide continuity for the majority of players and opportunities to grow new talent with a good base of experienced players to support the new ones coming through. Sydney reminded us that we need to treat every game as a final, and that it doesn’t matter who we are playing. All countries are now real threats. But we are confident that with the right focus we can take our game up another notch and play with greater consistency.”
Based on their own standard, Australia have had a disappointing opening two rounds of the World Series, with a second and fourth place, but still lie second overall.
“Las Vegas is a new venue for the Women’s Series and another step towards a joint Men’s and Women’s series,” said coach Tim Walsh.“It gives us another opportunity to cement our position at the top end of the table and compete for the World Series title again.”
For Las Vegas, the good news is the return of Emma Tonegato after an elbow injury kept her out of the Sydney squad. “We want to go back-to-back in the World Series - get a podium finish to show we aren’t one trick ponies,” she said.“We’ve reviewed it (Sydney), we’ve moved on and now we are really focussed on Vegas.”
It is illustrative of Australia’s strength that Tiana Penitani has had to be dropped to make way for Tonegato, though there is new too as Emma Sykes and Georgina Friedrichs, with just five caps between them, retain their places as Australia continue to develop their younger players.
Brazil lie equal bottom of the series with Spain, but will have been buoyed up by winning the Challenge competition in Sydney, including their win over England in the final, although it is perhaps ironic that that success has landed them in an unbelievably tough pool.
They come into the tournament fresh from their 12th South American title, where they were again overwhelmingly stronger than all of the teams they came up against. Ten of the 12 players who lifted the title in Argentina are in Las Vegas, with all of the leading players fit and available, including Beatriz Futuro who was voted as Brazil’s leading rugby players of 2016 by the Brazilian Olympic Committee this week.
England had their worst ever tournament last time in Sydney, missing out on the quarter finals for the first time. Assistant Coach James Bailey has made three changes from that side, with 1-year-old Holly Aitchison and Lotte Clapp making their World Series debuts while Deborah Fleming rejoins the squad having appeared in the opening leg of the series in Dubai. Abbie Brown captains the team again.
“The result in Sydney was disappointing but the players have responded well in training ahead of this next round”, Bailey said. “The squad has shown resilience and we have been working hard on all aspects of our performance to ensure we move forward in Las Vegas.
“The USA Sevens will be a challenging tournament for this group having been drawn in the same pool as Australia, New Zealand and Brazil, however it will be another opportunity for the squad to test themselves against some of the best teams in the world.”