We preview the final pool of the World Cup 7s which features England, Russia, France and Japan
Although on paper England are probably not the favourites going into this competition, with New Zealand winning the World Series, in reality a full strength England side are very well primed for a first ever World Cup Sevens title.
England’s entire season has been about this weekend in Moscow, with their 15s programme taking a hit in order to prepare the country’s best Sevens players for this tournament and there is no doubt that England feel that losing their Six Nations title this season will be worth it for if they are crowned champions on Sunday evening.
It is a lot of pressure for Barry Maddocks’ team but a glance at their squad list will tell you that they can cope. England were really only at full strength for one World Series tournament this season – that was in Houston where they won the competition outright but with all of their big guns chosen for Moscow, they will tough to beat.
Key for them is their pool clash with Russia at the end of day one – a side who have been growing in form and confidence and key too is the form of finisher Jo Watmore and powerhouse Heather Fisher, who are two of the most feared players on the women’s circuit.
On paper, France have always had the players who should do well at Sevens – but sevens is not a major priority in French rugby and they have seldom realised that potential. European Champions only once (in 2007), the French have rarely challenged England or Spain, and in recent years appeared to have been overtaken by Netherlands and Russia. A year ago even their ability to qualify for Moscow was in doubt.
But that has changed. This year coach David Courteix has been given first choice of players – even during the Six Nations, something previous unheard of – and it has made a difference. After a disappointing tournament in London, France were a revelation in Amsterdam. They continued with that form into the European Championship, topping their pool in both rounds, beating Spain to reach the final in Marbella, and finishing third overall.
Unfortunately their form from earlier years continues to haunt them. Not granted core status they were in the third tier of seeds and as a result find themselves in a very tough group, needing to overcome either the hosts or one of the tournament favourites. As a result they will probably not make the quarter-finals, but will should take the Plate.
The team that Pasha built, and passion drives. A year ago they started to attract attention as the team capable of worrying the best, this year they have become the team capable of beating the best – and it is not remotely far-fetched to say that they could win the entire tournament.
Built by coach Pavel (“Pasha”) Baronovsky from players with little or no previous experience of rugby (“I see a big woman in the street, I say come and play rugby”), they have a team spirit second to none, and fear no-one. Although Baizat Khamidova has been their standout player, they are far from a one-player team – Mukharyamova and Yarmotskaya are also names to watch. Astonishingly hardly any of these players have played rugby for more than 2-3 years.
If the way women’s sevens is played has changed over the past year, it is Russia who have been in the vanguard of that change. A strong team (in every sense of the word) they brought a new level of physicality to the game last season, and this year it has been only those teams who have been able to respond to that who have been successful.
Needless to say, Russia have been amongst them. They topped a group that included New Zealand in Dubai, beat Australia in Amsterdam, and are now European Champions for the first time. If they do well in Moscow then improved funding could follow, and given that who knows what they could achieve in the future.
Japan have a tough ask in this European heavy pool but having come through the Asian Qualifiers alongside China (and Fiji who came through that route as well as Oceania) they are fully deserving of their place and they should not be underestimated.
Like many of the Asian sides, size is an issue for Japan, and though plenty of the best Sevens sides are diminutive, being up against two of the most physical sides on the circuit in England and Russia will be a problem for the Japanese in the contact area.
In Houston earlier this year, Japan showed great heart and progression, losing eventually in the Bowl final to Brazil – a side they had beaten in the pool stages.
The Bowl is where they may find themselves again in this tournament but it is all part of a learning curve for a side who have great support from their union.