I have to say, it's exciting to be back writing previews again. I have missed you World Series of Sevens!!
Let's get right to the pools....Speaking of pools, I've been seeing all these squad photos on Twitter of teams getting pool sessions done in Dubai and I. AM. JEALOUS!!!! I think the England men were in a pool twice the size of my home. Unreal. Ok...to the pools! ((((SPLASH!!))))
POOL A: Australia, Russia, South Africa, USA
Australia. Gold Medalists. Yeah, we all know the deal. They're back & back with the cast of characters that did so much damage all last year. The Aussies do have a few "new" players in the squad like Brooke Anderson but she's no rookie despite having played only one event. Australia has demonstrated their depth and how effective their players are coming into these situations. If all three Aussies with one or fewer tourneys had to start all weekend, I'm pretty confident they'd make the final.
Russia finally has Nadezda Kudinova back. She's their leader and their number one gun. However, this team doesn't revolve around her. Players like Alena Mikhaltsova & Elena Zdrokova have shown plenty of threat potential to support Kudinova. They have all the talent necessary to challenge the Aussies but ball control will have to be their friend. They don't want to get in a shootout.
The USA will proudly point to their draw with Australia in Rio as well as their fifth place finish. Yes, they are signs that Coach Richie Walker is having the desired effect on the program. However, the US also lost to Fiji to get itself in trouble to begin with in Olympic competition. Only four Olympians remain for Dubai and a different squad will have to prove their mettle again. The US has always had the talent. Now, both sevens programs have the coaching and the game management tools to win tourneys. You could tell this group grew from some close, unsettling losses before the Olympics, especially a last second defeat to Spain. In Rio, the US benefitted from exceptional defensive play, only allowing 36 points over five games. What this group doesn't have is Olympic game breaker Jessica Javelet. It may put this team third in the group behind a more cohesive Russian unit.
Honestly, hearing South Africa's story was the big heartbreaker of 2016 for me. They earned their chance to go to Rio through the African qualifying & it was denied to them by their own Federation. A massive setback for South African women's rugby & for those athletes who worked so hard. This group is clearly fourth in the pool but will debut four new players here & needs to start rebuilding somewhere.
POOL B: France, New Zealand, Fiji, Ireland
New Zealand is the team to beat in Pool B. The 2016 Olympic Silver Medalists are again a threat to win the World Series and they return a squad full of experience, talent and grit. Alone, Portia Woodman has more World Series points than 7 of the 11 teams on site this weekend. And behind her are the likes of playmaker Tyla Nathan-Wong, Kelly Brazier, Niall Williams, Captain Sarah Goss & Ruby Tui. Formidable. Strong. Fast. Smart.
France will have their hands full dealing with the NZ 7's as usual. They themselves bring back a ton of experience with players like Cammi Grassineau & Marjorie Mayans. The French don't have recent history on their side, losing in pool to New Zealand in Rio, 26-7.
Ireland's offensive woes weighed them down all season last year. While the side was long on effort, it often struggled to convert possession into points. They need to find more time and space for threats like Amee Leigh Murphy Crowe & Alison Miller.
Fiji is the wild card of the tourney. Can they continue the Ben Ryan/Chris Cracknell program under new leadership & rekindle their flair & aggressive attack plans? If they can, the sky is the limit. Their women's program has the benefit of all their country's talent as opposed to the men, who seemingly supply the world with wings.
POOL C: Canada, England, Spain, Brazil
Canada & England have been pretty strong sevens rivals on the circuit for a while now but that intensity was ramped up in a pair of Rio 2016 clashes, including one for the bronze medal...which Canada won. The sides both have a bit of a different look coming into this weekend in Dubai. No Jen Kish for Canada, meaning perhaps that more focus will come on to two excellent power players that don't get enough credit in my opinion, Brittany Benn & Bianca Ferella.
Meanwhile, England has a new Captain in Abbie Brown & FIVE, count 'em five new names on the roster sheet. Stalwarts Jo Watmore, Amy Wilson-Hardy & Heather Fisher are back to provide a wealth of experience, class and stability
In the past, Brazil would have been looked on as the fourth of four here & clearly out of place. That was then. This is now. Brazil is a core team, having earned their way on tour with a ninth place win at their Rio Olympics and the roster is a nice mix of experience & young talent. They're clearly looking to make their way to the quarterfinals, not fill out the pool. If they can keep moving forward, their development model may be looked at by teams looking to make the jump on tour.
Meanwhile, Spain doesn't get enough credit for the solid, solid porgram they've built for sevens. Qualifying both sides for the Olympics was huge, especially against the odds on the men's side. They look at the gap between them & Canada/England and it comes down to speed. They're smart enough and compete level isn't the issue. They need some game breaking speed to change the equation offensively and perhaps one more ball winner at kickoff time.
QUARTERS & BEYOND
I like Australia to win the tourney with New Zealand and Canada to win their pools as well. Perhaps Russia for the 4th semi-final spot in Dubai. I just think the Aussies have too much high end talent here. Combined with their game discipline, it's a tough combo to beat. Beyond that, if they win Pool A, they'll avoid the winners of Pools B & C in the semis (if they both advance to the semis).
Also, look for Canada to have a strong showing even without Jen Kish. It's not an insult to Kish by any means, the Canadians are deep, talented and well coached. Look for that to come together this weekend in an epic semi final clash with New Zealand!