The sixth season of the World Series starts this weekend in Dubai, Just five rounds this year, with the World Cup a significant distraction.
Last season – the first post-Olympic year – saw an element of restructuring among the leading teams in the World Series, many of whom were also significantly distracted by the fifteens World Cup. As a result the performances of some teams – especially England – are probably not a good guide to 2017/18. Nonetheless it was a season that saw much that was significant, not least the rise of Fiji.
Even so New Zealand were winners again, losing just one game all year, while Australia and Canada fought for runners-up.
So what can we expect in Dubai this year?
Will anyone stop New Zealand from winning this pool? It seems unlikely though they are up against the only team to beat them last season – the United States – and France, who have come so close to often that surely their day must come?
The big potential upset may come from South Africa, who return with much of the team that reached the quarter-finals last year (only one debutant - Unathi Mali) but proved disappointing in the World Series qualifier and so will only appear in the series in this tournament – though they will also be at the Commonwealth Games and the World Cup.
It will be a much tougher ask for South Africa this year, however, as both the USA and France are packed with experienced players, many with Olympic experience.
USA v France will obviously be the game to watch. Both feature two debutants - Coralie Bertrand and Anne-Cécile Ciofani for France and Tia Blythe and Saskia Morgan for the USA – leaving the teams fascinatingly well balanced.
New Zealand: Katarina Whata; Portia Woodman; Michaela Blyde; Gayle Broughton; Sarah Goss; Kayla Mcalister; Tyla Nathan-Wong; Stacey Waaka; Niall Williams; Theresa Fitzpatrick; Alena Faalogoifo Saili; Ruby Tui
United States: Ryan Carlyle; Alev Kelter; Abby Gustaitis; Nicole Heavirland; Naya Tapper; Sarah Buonopane; Kelsi Stockert; Sara Parsons; Tia Laine Blythe; Saskia Tabra Kay Morgan; Jordan Gray
France: Fanny Horta; Chloe Pelle; Camille Grassineau; Jade Le Pesq; Shannon Izar; Pauline Biscarat; Montserrat Amedee; Carla Neissen; Serafine Okemba; Audrey Anne-Cecile Ciofani; Marjorie Mayans
South Africa: Phumeza Gadu; Mathrin Simmers; Veroeshka Grain; Marithy Pienaar; Jacqueline Kriel; Zintle Mpupha; Megan Comley; Nadine Roos; Chane Stadler; Christelene Steinhoebel; Eloise Webb; Unathi Elis Mali
Australia’s Page McGregor is one “find” from the AON Series who has made it all the way to the World Series itself, though she is used to success in green and gold having lifted gold in the Commonwealth Youth Games in this real “Pool of Death”.
England concentration on the fifteens World Cup resulted in a far lower ranking last season than in previous years – though it did “blood” a number of players who may prove useful in the future. For now the experienced players who reached the semi-finals in Rio are back, lead by the totemic Emily Scarratt, who invariably inspires her team to reach new heights when she is on the field.
The fascinating question, though, is how ready they will be having done another hand-brake turn between 15s to 7s. It seems certain they’ll reach the quarter-finals, but to go further so soon in the series would be an achievement.
Australia feature a couple of names who went to Ireland in the summer, but they have had the highly competitive AON series to prepare for this. In many ways this will be a measure of how effective that experiment was – if Australia are lifting silver at the end of Day Two we may see other replicating that initiative. Certainly they are the only team at the moment likely to trouble the Ferns.
Russia are packed with experience and normally love Dubai, coming as it does so soon after their summer-based season. They also enjoy playing England and will give the Roses all sort of problems.
Finally Japan are back with four players who were in their fifteens team in Ireland. Realistically they will be aiming for Day Two and the Challenge competition where they could pick up some valuable tournament points.
Australia: Sharni Williams; Charlotte Caslick; Emilee Cherry; Evania Pelite; Emma Tonegato; Dominique Du Toit; Mahalia Murphy; Georgina Friedrichs; Emma Sykes; Lauren Brown; Page McGregor; Shannon Parry
Russia: Alena Mikhaltsova; Baizat Khamidova; Marina Kukina; Kristina Seredina; Maria Perestiak; Daria Lushina; Anna Gavrilyuk; Arina Bystrova; Elena Zdrokova; Daria Noritsina; Snezhanna Kulkova; Daria Bobkova
England: Heather Fisher; Emily Scarratt; Alex Matthews; Lydia Thompson; Emily Scott; Amy Wilson Hardy; Megan Jones; Katie Mason; Deborah Fleming; Holly Aitchison; Claire Allan
Japan: Chisato Yoko; Ano Kuwai; Yume Okuroda; Honoka Tsutsumi; Iroha Nagata; Yume Hirano; Emii Tanaka; Tomomi Kozasa; Sayaka Suzuki; Chiharu Nakamura
Canada’s policy of separating their sevens and fifteens teams, which may have cost them a semi-final in Ireland, will show if it was justified by a good performance here, and they have picked an impressive looking team that sees the return of Jen Kish, and also the appearance of Tausani Levale who won silver in the Commonwealth Youth Games and makes a debut alongside Emma Crown.
Both they and Fiji should make the quarter comfortably. Fiji have a lot to live up to after their best ever season last year and include just one new face, Vasiti Kuma Solikoviti.
Ireland and Spain – alongside Japan – will be battling for their World Series lives this year, with Spain in particular needing to break the long run of being the “unlucky” third placed team that misses out on the quarter-finals. That pressure will always tend to result in some conservative team selections, and Spain are again drifting to the top of the “oldest team” rankings with no debutants and only Anne Fernández De Corres under 20.
Rivals Ireland, on the other hand, feature three new faces - Eve Higgins, Deirbhile Nic a Bhaird, and Claire Boles – so it will be interesting to see whether youth can score over experience.
Canada: Jen Kish; Ghislaine Landry; Hannah Darling; Julia Greenshields; Kayla Moleschi; Natasha Watcham-Roy; Caroline Crossley; Megan Lukan; Breanne Nicholas; Tausani Ivana Levale; Brittany Benn
Fiji: Rusila Nagasau; Litia Naiqato; Timaima Rosi Lulutai Ravisa; Viniana Naisaluwaki Riwai; Ana Maria Roqica; Pricilla Sauvavi Siata; Lavenia Tinai; Luisa Basei Tisolo; Ana Maria Naimasi; Vasiti Kuma Solikoviti; Merewai Cumu
Ireland: Ashleigh Baxter; Aoife Doyle; Katie Fitzhenry; Amee Leigh Murphy Crowe; Hannah Tyrrell; Stacey Flood; Louise Galvin; Lucy Mulhall; Claire Boles; Deirbhile Nic A Bhaird; Audrey O'Flynn
Spain: Barbara Pla; Marina Bravo; Maria Ribera; Patricia Garcia; Maria Casado; Iera Echebarria Fernandez; Elisabet Martinez Garcia; Amaia Erbina Arana; Anne Fernández De Corres; Sabina Hurtado; Uri Barrutieta; Maria Losada;
Play begins at 8am UK time (noon local time) on 30th November, with the final at 1.15pm (5.15pm local) on Friday.