Lead? Who needs a lead? Let's get right to the pools....
POOL A: Fiji, Wales, Argentina, Canada
Fiji are the reigning Olympic Rugby Champions on the men's side as well as the reigning back-to-back World Series Champions. Life changing moments in Rio. Gold medals, the first ever for Fiji! Parades. Ben Ryan was proclaimed a Chief. Osea Kolinisau got a Twitter account. Big stuff! Well, new year, new slate. And with that new slate, Fiji still looks strong. Stalwarts Kolinisau, Jerry Tuwai, Samisoni Viriviri and Jasa Veremalua are back and the Fijian Express seems ready to roll on in Dubai.
They'll get a very favorable matchup in Argentina. Try as they might, the Pumas couldn't get rid of Fiji last season, even drawing them in the Olympics in pool play. They battled and became a much better team along the way for it but they couldn't get a real advantage on the Fijians. They finished fifth on tour last year. The Argentines will debut 4 rookies on the Series in their starting twelve this weekend, including Olympians Domingo Miotti & Jose Barros Sosa.
Wales came in 12th last season, well ahead of Russia & Portugal's relegation battle but also 31 tour points behind France for 11th place. Vets like Luke Treharne, Sam Cross and Adam Thomas are around for another tour of Dubai but Wales will run 5 rookies in their thirteen member roster this weekend. Given the back seat sevens takes at times to the 15's game and the Pro 12 in Wales, this is to be expected.
Canada have a new coach. Damian McGrath led Samoa to glory by winning the 2016 Paris 7's but fell short of the Olympics, losing to Spain on the last play of the Olympic Repechage Tourney in Monaco. That loss cost him his job, apparently. He'll have a returning corps of vets to work with led by fan favorite John Moonlight but his real task will be minimizing the Canadian error rate. Mistakes and simple ones plagued Canada all season long and really shouldn't have been representative of a club with so much Series experience.
POOL B: USA, Uganda, South Africa, Scotland
The USA often seemed to be a single play away last campaign, even just falling short of the quarterfinals in Rio. A strong sixth place finish on tour didn't replace those feelings of what might have been for a talented American side. Forward stars Danny Barrett and Andrew Durutalo return to the roster as does speed burner Perry Baker and Captain/Playmaker Madison Hughes. This US team will have a goal of playing three strong games in pool play & ironing out their inconsistent patches of play.
Uganda won the African Sevens, beating a solid Kenyan B side to earn their way here. Their 15's side is really quite talented and I think it'd wreak some havoc if it were dropped into the Rugby Europe Trophy competition, for instance. I would expect the Ugandans to be positive and be looking to play rugby this weekend, which should delight the fans in Dubai. All 12 players will be making their HSBC Sevens World Series debuts.
South Africa were last year's bridesmaids, coming in second on tour only 10 points shy of Fiji. They won their home tourney in Cape Town & came in second in Wellington, Vancouver & London. Seabelo Senatla was the Player of the Year in the World Rugby Awards and his blazing speed always sets the tempo for opponents looking to defend the Blitzboks. Philip Snyman takes over the Captaincy. 11 of the 12 players in their active twelve have over a year of tour experience and their 363 caps are the most of any team in Dubai.
Scotland had only placed in the Cup Quarterfinals once in nine tourneys last year before shocking the rugby world by winning the London Sevens in dramatic fashion. That propelled them into a 10th place finish for the season but gave that group so much confidence going forward. George Horne is the only debutant for Scotland this weekend as they return most of that experienced squad for Dubai.
POOL C: New Zealand, Samoa, Russia, England
DJ Forbes will become the World Series' all time leader in events played this weekend (80) and he is still the most lethal ball winner at ruck time. You tell the man he's old...I'll film it for entertainment purposes. He's joined by all-world player Tim Mikkelson and tour vets Sherwin Stowers & Scott Curry. Seven of NZ's 13 man list have 6 or fewer events under their belt but you know that roster is dripping with loads of experience in that great rugby culture. Expect them atop this pool.
Samoa was a team in turmoil after an unexpected exit in the Final of the Olympic Repechage Tourney that lead to the firing of Coach McGrath & the hiring of New Zealand 7's Coach Sir Gordon Tietjens. Sir Gordon will yield to the coach's coach Stephen Betham while he's under contractual obligations to the All Black 7's but expect rapid, rapid progress from the winning perch they occupied at the Paris 7's. Familiar names such as Lio Lolo & Samoa Toloa are back as well as promising prospect Phoenix Hunapo-Napoa,
Russia staved off relegation last season, edging Portugal but will be in dire straits if Japan can keep its form from last season. They finished 4th in Rio & even ended up just 7 points shy of Russia on tour despite playing half the events. Kevin Akuabu & Alexey Kapalin are the only debutants as Russia will attack this challenge with all the tour experience it has.
England are a bit short on speed but high in technical skill & game sense. Often, that scouting report led to the Bowl Quarterfinals last season. Five times, England failed to make the top eight and they haven't made significant changes to their core group for Dubai. Ruh Roh.
POOL D: Australia, France, Kenya, Japan
Australia will debut five new players but young flyer Henry Hutchison isn't one of them. Despite his youthful appearance, he has a full year of tour experience under his belt and will be a big contributor this weekend. Sam Myers will captain the side & James Stannard may be the best decision maker on tour. Expect rock solid games from this group, even factoring in the new kids on the block.
France's roster has a ton of experience and not much breakaway speed. Winger Julian Candelon is 36 and while Terry Bouhraoua is a sensational playmaker, he'll need more help if France are to compete with teams like Kenya & Japan who have been more dynamic. Their winning formula will include dominating the kickoff and patience stretching defenses when in possession. Bouhraoua's second try will be his 100th on tour.
Kenya have a new coach in system product Innocent Simiyu and expect him to know his way around the Captain's Wheel. He'll take a shot at navigating a talented, yet inconsistent roster. Kenya finished seventh on tour last season, including a win in Singapore and three abysmal weekends in Dubai, Vancouver & London. They're a top eight side and should expect to challenge for the Cup Final every weekend. Andew Amonde (48 events), Willy Ambaka (29) and Billy Odhiambo (27) will lead the side but a third of the roster has one event or less of experience. That may take a few games to work itself out before the side produces top results.
Japan was unspeakably awesome in the Olympics, downing New Zealand and crushing Kenya while barely losing to Team GB before knocking France out in the quarterfinals. However, much of that experience won't be in Dubai for the Brave Blossoms. Only three of their 12 will have any tour experience and given the performance of their university players in the Asian Sevens Series recently, this Japan side may be in big trouble this weekend.
QUARTERS & BEYOND:
I like Fiji to maintain their dominance on tour and win this weekend. My inclination towards South African success should continue both this weekend with a strong semi and next for their Cape Town tourney too. I'll take Samoa as my dark horse surprise package for the tourney. Look out for the men in blue!