384 days after the end of the last World Rugby-sponsored tournament, the first of two Madrid 7s takes place this weekend.
When New Zealand beat Canada in the final of the Sydney 7s on 2nd February last year no-one could have suspected that it would be over a year before World Rugby could organise another sevens tournament.
It has been a long wait, but at last this weekend and next six national teams will meet in the Spanish capital. It is clear that several teams who had hoped to travel to Spain – including Ireland, Brazil and South Africa – have been prevented from travelling due to the continuing COVID-19 pandemic.
The resulting officially dubbed “Olympic warm-up” six-team tournament therefore features only two teams who will definitely be at the Tokyo Games, plus just two more who are still hope to qualify, numbers being made up with two whose eyes are now on 2024.
Nonetheless this is a big opportunity for the Spanish Federation who have bid to host rounds of the women’s World Series in the past, but have always been turned down. They will be hoping to impress World Rugby with their hosting of the first official women’s tournament on Spanish soil since the 2002 World Cup. The are certainly pulling out as many stops as is possible within COVID restrictions with high-profile official receptions for the teams.
For the players it will be a strange week in Spain, with little or no mixing with other teams. When not playing or training the teams are be restricted to their two hotels – Poland, Russia and Kenya in one; Spain, France and the USA in another, both about 20 minutes from the ground.
Unfortunately, a difficult-to-understand clash with European XVs championship – also taking place in Spain over the same two weekends – has resulted in a Spanish squad that is very much one for the future.
The familiar face and scrum cap of Marina Bravo will lead a largely unfamiliar team with ten uncapped players in the 16-players selected for the two weekends (to be narrowed down to 12 in time for Saturday).
Bravo isn’t quite alone, however. The redoubtable Barbara Pla, who has played an amazing 324 times for the Lionesses since her sevens debut just under 17 years ago, is in the 16 as is Maria Casado. Teresa Bueso, Ingrid Algar and Iciar Pozo have also pulled on the red and black before, but for everyone else this will be something very new.
Its going to be a tough debut for this young team as their opponents have not held back with their selections.
Russia are prioritising this sevens instead of the XVs European Championship, and have selected a powerful squad. With Olympic qualification still undecided (along with a lack of any clarity about whether they will be allowed to go to Tokyo even if the do qualify), Audrey Kuzin has selected a line-up that means business. There are one or two new names, plus old faces with new names, and overall this would be what a Russian World Series team would look like at the moment.
France have also yet to book their tickets for Tokyo, and David Courteix has also selected what appears to be his strongest possible team.
The United States already have their Olympic spot, but nonetheless have also chosen a squad that would not look out of place in the World Series, and will be hoping to fly home with a good medal haul. Their 16 includes a handful of uncapped players but there are some powerful players in reserve – such as Naya Tapper.
The other team in Madrid with the Tokyo tickets booked is Kenya. Coach Felix Oloo has selected a squad lead by the vastly experienced Philadelphia Olando, as team captain.
Kenya are not a World Series team and have therefore had an even longer period of inactivity than Spain, France, USA or Russia. Kenya’s last competitive game was in October 2019 when they narrowly lost in the African Sevens final to South Africa. It is Oloo’s biggest concern
"We have not played in a competitive tournament for over a year,” he said. “Our kickoffs and defence will be tested by strong opposition and I want to see how we will cope.”
Kenya are pleased to be at the tournament and “will not be going to make up the numbers”.
"We are relishing the challenge of competing and put into practice what we have learnt,” continued Oloo. "The team has grown in leaps and bounds over the last two seasons and we want to give it our all and help us create a platform to perform well at the Tokyo Olympics in July”,
The squad has had 34 training session in the past three months and captain Philadelphia Olando said the team is a blend of youth and experience with notable inclusion being Naomi Amugani, who has been handed a debut call up, while Sarah Oluche and Ann Goreti return.
"The new players have brought competition to the squad and we, the senior players, have had to raise our game which is healthy for the team,” said Olando.
Poland lost to Spain in the last eight of Europe’s Olympic qualifier in July 2019, finishing sixth overall, but are regular visitors to Spain. Their last official tournament was in November 2019 at the Elche Sevens, but they have held joint training camps with Spain since then so are not entirely lacking in recent playing experience.
The Poles have ambitions to reach the World Series, and have competed in qualification tournaments in recent years, but this will be perhaps their biggest test yet. They will open the tournament against the United States - a team they have never played before – and will also close the pool stage on Sunday with a first ever game against Kenya.
France: Montserrat Amedee (Montpellier RC / FFR); Coralie Bertrand (RC Chilly Mazarin / FFR); Anne-Cécile Ciofani (AC Bobigny 93 Rugby / FFR); Doriane Constanty (Stade Français Paris / FFR); Mathilde Coutouly (Stade Français Paris / FFR); Célia Dranes (USAP / AC Bobigny 93 Rugby / FFR); Caroline Drouin (Stade Rennais Rugby / FFR); Camille Grassineau (FFR); Joanna Grisez (AC Bobigny 93 Rugby / FFR); Lina Guerin (RC Chilly Mazarin / FFR); Fanny Horta (FFR); Shannon Izar (RC Chilly Mazarin / FFR); Chloé Jacquet (Lyon OU / FFR); Iän Jason (Stade Toulousain Rugby / FFR); Nassira Konde (AC Bobigny 93 Rugby / FFR); Valentine Lothoz (Stade Rennais Rugby / FFR); Romane Menager (Montpellier RC / FFR); Carla Neisen (Blagnac Rugby Féminin / FFR); Séraphine Okemba Grace (Stade Français Paris / FFR); Chloé Pelle (RC Chilly Mazarin / FFR); Jade Ulutule (Stade Rennais Rugby / FFR); Yolaine Yengo (Stade Rennais Rugby / FFR)
Kenya: Philadelphia Olando 2. Celestine Masinde 3. Sheilla Chajira 4. Ann Goretti 5. Stella Wafula 6. Naomi Amuguni 7. Camilla Cynthia 8. Janet Okello 9. Linet Moraa 10. Enid Ouma 11. Diana Awino 12. Christabel Lindo 13. Sarah Oluche.
Poland: Julia Druzgała; Karolina Jaszczyszyn (captain); Małgorzata Kołdej; Aleksandra Leśniak; Hanna Maliszewska; Marta Morus; Natalia Pamięta; Klaudia Respondek; Sylwia Witkowska; Patrycja Zawadzka; Malwina Zielińska; Maria Nowacka; Tamara Czumer; Aleksandra Lachowska.
Russia: Anna Baranchuk (CSKA Moscow); Elena Zdrokova (CSKA Moscow); Anastasia Prokudina (CSKA Moscow); Christina Seredina (CSKA Moscow); Nadezhda Sozonova (CSKA Moscow); Alena Tiron (CSKA); Victoria Em (CSKA); Anna Gavrilyuk (VVA-Moscow region); Yana Danilova (VVA-Moscow region); Marina Kukina (VVA-Moscow region); Daria Noritsina (VVA-Moscow region); Maria Pogrebnyak (VVA-Moscow region); Ekaterina Skoromko (VVA-Moscow region); Alina Arterchuk (Enisey-STM); Bayzat Khamidova (Yenisei-STM)
Spain: (uncapped unless stated) Marta Cantabrana; Bruna Elias; Marua Marin; Teresa Bueso (58); Cecilia Huarte; Ingrid Algar (74); Iciar Pozo (10); Ana Vila; Marina Bravo (281); Silvia Morales; Amaiur Mayo; Barbara Pla (324); Zahia Perez; Lea Ducher; Carla Fernando (275); Maria Casado
United States: Sui A'au, Prop, (uncapped); Lauren Doyle, Flyhalf/Wing, (30 ); Cheta Emba, (Prop/Wing, (16); Abby Gustaitis, Prop/Hooker, (12); Nicole Heavirland, Hooker/Scrumhalf, (24); Kristi Kirshe, Centre/Wing, (8); Ilona Maher, Centre/prop, (12); Kayla Canett, Scrumhalf/Flyhalf, (10); Kasey McCravey, Hooker/Flyhalf, (4); Alena Olsen, Scrumhalf/Flyhalf, (3); Kristen Thomas, Hooker/Centre, (26); Nia Toliver, Prop/Wing, (uncapped).
RESERVES); Stephanie Rovetti, Flyhalf/Wing, (6); Naya Tapper, Wing/Prop, (21); Nana Fa'avesi, Scrumhalf, (19); Jazmine Gray, Wing, (uncapped)
(from 10.00 CET; live stream on World Rugby website)
Saturday: United States v Poland; Russia v Kenya; Spain v France; Kenya v United States; France v Russia; Poland v Spain; France v Kenya; Russia v Poland; Spain v United States
Sunday: United States v Russia; Kenya v Spain; Poland v France; France v United States; Russia v Spain; Poland v Kenya.
Playoffs (from 15:30): 5th in pool vs 6th; 3rd vs 4th. Final (1st vs 2nd)