In the final installment of our three previews ahead of the start of the Women's Sevens World Series opener in Dubai this weekend, we look at Pool C which contains Australia, USA, France and Netherlands. By John Birch and Ali Donnelly
The reigning Sevens World Champions have happy memories of Dubai as the venue at which it won the top crown in 2009.
But the Australia team playing this weekend is dramatically different to the side that lifted the World Cup. Only two players remain for this tournament who were part of that squad Rebecca Tavo and Tricia Brown as Australia have developed a wider pool of talent to cope with retirements and the growth of the game.
The Australians have had mixed fortunes by their own standards this year but were part of an epic game in front of a huge crowd at the Hong Kong Sevens final early in the year where they narrowly lost out to England. That couldnt quite push then on to honours later in the season, being upset by Holland in London and then losing to Canada to finish fourth there, while losing to the USA in Amsterdam was a blow that saw them finish third a week later.
In August they reached a final in Fiji where they came out second best to New Zealand but fared better in September winning the Asia Pacific Women's Sevens Championship in Borneo with a 36-17 win over a plucky Japan side in the final, having lost to the Japanese earlier in the series.
Facing both USA and Holland two sides they have lost to in 2012 will be motivation enough for Australia who have named a very strong squad to kick the series off. Emily Cherry, Sharni Willams, Tavo and Brown are all huge talents on the Sevens circuits and if Australia go well in their pool they have more than enough ability to go all the way.
As with other teams involved with Autumn Internationals, USA have had to make compromises between their fifteens and sevens squads. Two players with full-time sevens contracts - Kimber Rozier and Kaelene Lundstrum - went to France with fifteens, and so are not available for Dubai. On the other hand leading players such as Vanesha McGee and Christy Ringgenberg forsook the opportunity to play in Rome and Paris, and as a result will be in the Eagles team for the WSWS first round.
The USA have shown that they can beat anyone in 2011-12 they beat England and Australia in Amsterdam, Netherlands in Las Vegas, and Spain in Hong Kong but in recent years the US sevens team has had to live in the shadows of its highly successful northern neighbour. Two semi-finals and a Plate win in last years IRB Challenge Series, plus finals at Las Vegas and Amsterdam have shown that the Eagles are a force to be reckoned with on the world stage fully justifying their selection as a Core Team for the WSWS - but on every occasion their Canadian rivals went one step further, including beating the USA in both of the finals.
Their selection in the Group of Death in Dubai will make even a semi-final a tough ask for the Eagles. The draw is, in fact, very similar to that they faced in London, when a slow start resulted in defeat to France in their opening game a loss from which they never really recovered. Faced with the same opposition in their opening game this time the Eagles will be looking to learn from that experience.
The Dutch womens sevens team were one of the first to seize the opportunity that inclusion in the Olympics provided. After finishing third in the 2011 European Championship they became the first womens rugby team in the world to go professional the leading players devoting themselves full-time to the game, backed up by development squad. The Dutch also set the standard for promoting the game, running high-profile competitions to attract young female athletes to trial to join the squad for 2016 competitions that have attracted widespread publicity across a country where rugby had hitherto been a minority sport and some players from the first competition may be making their debuts in Dubai.
The Dutch project is an experiment that many other countries across the world will be watching with interest. It is a long term project the target is 2016, rather than 2013 as was shown by the surprise and delight of the team when they beat Australia to reach the final at the London Sevens. It was a performance that showed what full-time training can achieve both in terms of the quality of play, and also the measureable improvement compared with the teams performance at their other IRB Challenge in Hong Kong a few months where they had finished a disappointing 8th.
The Dutch have shown a real ability to rise to an occasion and perform beat the best in the world - as well as beating Australia in 2012 Netherlands have also beaten England and Spain. However, they also have a frustrating ability to lose unexpectedly to teams ranked below them, such as France (in the European quarter-finals) and Russia indeed the Russians in London demonstrated a possible fragility against teams with a more physical style of play. However, London was six months ago which, as we have seen, is plenty of time for a full-time sevens team to work on any perceived weaknesses.
France remain France. In recent years their sevens team has been just as wonderful and infuriating and unpredictable as their fifteens team, no more so than last season when - after seriously disappointing performances in London and Amsterdam - they got it right in the European Championship, qualifying for the World Cup with relative ease, including a memorable 22-0 win over the Netherlands who they will face again in their pool in Dubai.
It has been clear from the start of the season that sevens is Frances number one priority. Their domestic season began with two weeks of inter-club sevens a tournament that revealed a number of new players, most notably Lilles teenage sensation Shannon Izar an international class heptathlete who showed her ability in her new sport with a good performance for France on debut in the Marcoussis tournament last month.
Other exciting new faces in the squad include Bobignys Pauline Biscarrat and Rose Thomas from Bordeaux, who are joined by established player from previous seasons such as Caroline Ladagnous, Christelle LemDuff and Laura Di Muzio. On paper it is an exciting team that could compete for a semi-final place at least. But, this is France