For the first time this weekend a World Series champion team will host a round of the World Series.
Double-headers - will Sydney show the future of Sevens?
One problem with the current Women’s Sevens World Series is that there is a long gap between the opening round in Dubai, and the next time the teams are on the field. As a result, the earlier tournament can be a misleading guide to the second – beyond the fact that it controls the seedings. This round – and the next – also compete with the Six Nations for theplayers, and this year it is the fifteens that is getting priority.
Absences of key players from some teams due to the Six Nations, or injury, plus other squads building already towards Tokyo make this a potentially unpredictable tournament, though on paper Australia, New Zealand and Canada have by far the strongest squads.
This is readily apparent in Pool A where a disappointing opening round sees France face New Zealand, Canada and unknown newcomers Papua New Guinea.
New Zealand – winners in Dubai – have attracted the headlines in recent weeks following some surprises in their sevens squad. The twelve for Sydney includes two teenagers – 18 year-old debutant Alena Saili, and 19 year-old Terina Te Tamaki, who plays in her second tournament – but other than that is packed with big names, lead by Portia Woodman but also including the likes of Kelly Brazier, Renee Wickliffe, Sarah Goss and Tyla Nathan-Wong. It’s an awesome line-up.
Canada will run them close, though. No newbies in this team – the youngest is 20 year-old Hannah Darling, but even she is a veteran with two seasons of experience. Jen Kish is back, and with the likes of Ghislaine Landry, Bianca Farella, Ashley Staecy and Natasha Watcham-Roy also on the field it’s a tough call to say who will win this pool.
France would have been faced with a huge challenge in this pool even before the Six Nations pulled away several of their leading stars, but then to lose Camille Grassineau as well really leaves David Courteix’s team with a mountain to climb. Cyrielle Banet makes her debut, while three other players have only played in one or two previous tournaments. Fanny Horta leads the team, with Pauline Biscarat her most experienced teammate. This is also one of the oldest teams in Sydney with three players in their 30s. Courteix was disappointed with the outcome in Dubai, but France will be doing well to match that in Sydney.
Papua New Guinea complete the line up in their first World Series. They have at least played New Zealand, Australia and Fiji before, but other than that this will be a huge step up. Joana Lagona is the captain and most experienced player, with rugby highlights going back to a hat-trick in the final of the 2011 Asia-Pacific when they beat Kazakhstan in the final – one of their biggest triumphs before this. This will all be about learning and experience.
For Australia, you feel, the very minimum requirement is that they win the tournament. No other team in the history of women’s rugby can ever have gone into a tournament with such a weight of public expectation – but then there has never been such a high-profile women’s team. The lead face promoting Sydney Sevens is Charlotte Caslick, bigger (literally) than any male player in pre-tournament publicity.
But then it is no exaggeration to say that they have changed the game of rugby in Australia as perhaps no other team ever has. The fact that the tournament is taking place in Sydney at all is probably due to their success.
How they respond to this will be a true test. Home teams have a decidedly mixed history of success on the Women’s World Series – perhaps only the United States have risen to challenge, while teams like Canada, France and England have arguably under-performed on home soil.
The team is mainly gold medal heroes, with only one teenager (Emma Sykes) in the squad – somewhat unusual for Australia. The rest of the squad is full of big names (most of whom are aged 24 or less, which must be a pretty scary thought for opponents). The atmosphere in the stadium should they make the last four (never mind the final) could be remarkable.
Fiji have a pretty good record when playing in Australia – they beat New Zealand in the Oceania Sevens when it was hosted here. Couple that with a top six seeding, thanks to a great Dubai weekend, and this could just be their breakthrough tournament. Their sevens players were also kept away from Fiji’s tilt at the fifteens World Cup, so all of their main names are here. Consistency across a tournament has always been an issue, but given their draw a quarter-final should be a minimum.
Ireland have balanced their fifteens and sevens squads, with players such as Ashleigh Baxter and Lucy Mulhall in Sydney when might easily have held places in the Six Nations squad. As a result, they are in the unusual position of being arguably one of the stronger European teams in Sydney and – with the addition of experience of playing the Sydney last year – have a great chance of making the quarters.
Brazil continue their battle to just stay on terms with the rest of the World Series, but – aside from Australia – they find themselves in a group where, despite being fourth seeds, they have a good chance of emerging. All of their leading players are available – Paula Ishibashi, Edna Santini, Isadora Cerullo – so there is plenty of experience and could pull of some surprises.
Russia are top seeds in a pool that is a mini-European Championship. They surprised many with their fourth place in Dubai, after their disappointment the previous summer – but then Nadezda Kudinova was back. In Sydney she is missing again, which could be crucial in a team that has had a reputation for fracturing under pressure. On the other hand, Baizat Khamidova is back, which should add some power to the team along with Alena Mikhaltsova who had such a great weekend in the previous round.
England were clearly disappointed with their result in Dubai, but – like France - they will be doing well to match that position this weekend. Although Jo Richardson-Watmore, Heather Fisher, Alice Richardson-Watmore, Natasha Brennan and Fran Matthews are available, the other half of the squad is no-where near as experienced. Teenagers Rachel Woosey and Chantelle Miell make their debuts, while Katie Mason, Emily Wood and Kelly Smith have only played a handful of previous games. This is partly due to the Six Nations and World Cup, but it also means that England now have a chance to take a long-term view of their sevens. They should make the last eight, but the greatest thing they may come away with will be the experience of their younger players.
Spain, with no Six Nations concerns, have a great chance to record one of their best results for some time in Sydney. Maria Bravo’s absence will be a blow, but new sevens coach Eusebio Quevedo’s squad is an interesting blend of youth and experience, with debutant Uri Barrutieta joining three other teenagers in the team – no longer are Spain the oldest squad in the tournament. Despite missing Bravo, the team can still call the huge experience of players such as Barbara Pla, Berta Garcia and Patricia Garcia. They will be confident and will be expecting a quarter-final spot.
United States had an awful Dubai, and so find themselves bottom seed in this pool, but Ritchie Walker’s team must fancy their chances in what injuries and absences have made a very even pool. Kristen Thomas, Alex Kelter and Kelly Griffin are the main names in a team that is looking to the future with 17 year-old Ryan Carlyle the youngest player in Sydney.