Every town was Paris and every month was May. Ah, to be in Paris in the spring! Let's get right to business with the pools...
POOL A: Canada, South Africa, Scotland, Japan
How about Canada winning the Singapore Sevens? They came ready to play and took advantage of their opportunities. It was enough to win them their first Cup title ever and gives the program a ton of momentum going forward. The win shot them past Scotland and Argentina into seventh in the standings but long term, it's a big foundation piece towards growing the game back home. The Canada Sevens has been a smash in Vancouver and now the team has hardware to show off for Rugby Canada's investment.
South Africa has the 2016-17 World Series all but locked up and they get star runner Rosko Specman back as well. It's almost not fair. I'd expect this group to cruise through the pool undefeated.
Scotland's form has seriously deteriorated since Wellington. 44 of their 68 tour points were earned over the first three tourneys this season and 24 over the next five. Ugly. There is a path to the Quarters through Canada but the Canadians have taken much better care of the ball of late.
Japan's time is now to show improved form (and ideally win two pool games this weekend) if they'd like to stay on tour. No reinforcements are coming to save them so the young guys they've developed this season will have to do the trick.
POOL B: United States of America, New Zealand, Wales, Argentina
The USA made the final of the Singapore Sevens but didn't seem to show up until seven minutes in. That was enough for Canada to run out to a 19-0 lead and one late try was enough to seal the deal in a 26-19 Canada win. It was an especially discouraging performance given their hard fought struggle to get in the final over a number of tour stops this year. This group is determined and knowing Coach Friday, he'll be itching for another opportunity to claim a Cup. Given the stage of the season and that the battle for this season's World Series title is essentially over, that desire may be a difference maker when it comes time for the Cup matches on Sunday. Unfortunately for the Eagles, Danny Barrett is out with an injury and will be replaced by Alex Schwarz of Old Blue & the Northeast Academy. Barrett is a key player but the US does have depth. Don't count them out for gold.
New Zealand's Cup run in Singapore came to an end at the hands of Canada but close wins over Kenya & South Africa gave the squad something to celebrate in earning fifth place. Nine players are unavailable for selection due to injury & the men in black will be debuting Jamie Booth (#6, Manawatu Turbos) and Fa'asiu Fuatai (#8, Otago). DJ Forbes and Tim Mikkelson will be counted on to lead from the front and players like Joe Webber & Sione Malia will be looked at for larger contributions.
Wales won their second Challenge Trophy (9th place, best non-quarterfinalist) in three starts in Singapore. While the side is happy to earn hardware, the goal is to cash in on their strong form to earn a ticket to the quarters. Sam Cross had an excellent all-around tourney in Singapore and the Welsh will see a lot of opportunity in this pool to advance. A strong start in their first match against New Zealand is crucial.
Argentina has five new players in their 13 man list for Paris. Given their stability on tour, it's a prime time to test out new players. Franco Sabato leads the way with 62 tries in 33 appearances for the Pumas 7's side. Sabato, Gaston Revol & Fernando Luna are the only three players with 15 or more appearances and only Australia, Japan & Spain have fewer tour appearances as a side. With this kind of a roster, the Argentines are lucky to be facing a New Zealand side racked with injuries and a Welsh side that tends to play their best ball on day two.
POOL C: England, Kenya, France, Spain
Welcome to the Sevens World Series, Spain! Now that they've won the qualifier, they get a taste of what they'll be facing next season as a core team. While the Spanish don't have a ton of gamebreaking speed, they do have the discipline and the structure to knock off any of the other three teams in the pool provided they get enough possession. It doesn't help that the team they seem closest to, France, is defending their home turf.
Speaking of the French, they earned a third place finish at Stade Jean Bouin last year following a weekend of spritied play on their part. Despite the absence of Terry Bouhraoua, Virimi Vakatawa is in the lineup along with a home farewell tourney for Julien Candelon. Candelon racked up 112 tries in 42 events for France on the Series as well as a pair of caps and a pair of tries for the French 15's side. His presence will be sorely missed next season. Expect another strong effort from the home side.
England sits third on the World Series ladder at the moment just two points shy of Fiji (130 to 132). A top three finish is virtually assured for the men in white but they'll be looking for more, especially with the final stop at Twickenham next weekend. The core of the roster is back again in the form of Norton, Rodwell, Mitchell, Bibby, Burgess & Hayter. Tom Mitchell leads the World Series in points scored, up two on Ethan Davies of Wales and 12 on Osea Koliniasu of Fiji.
Kenya's hopes of repeating in Singapore were dashed by England in a 13-12 quarterfinal loss and the Kenyans will be hungry to avenge the defeat. Their physical style of play is a tough matchup for anyone and with one or two more breaks this round, they could easily win this pool. Darwin Kinyangi should make his debut in the number six jumper for Kenya while Andrew Amonde plays tourney number 57.
POOL D: Australia, Fiji, Samoa, Russia
First thought here is that this is an awfully tough draw for Russia. Yes, they're nine points ahead of Japan but they'd love to earn a quarterfinal slot to essentially seal a spot on next year's tour. The Russians have about 100 more events under the belts across the roster than the Japanese and that's been a big difference this season. Also, the recent play of Vladimir Ostroushko has been a key factor for them. Sadly, they'll be hard pressed to get even a single win against this group.
Australia earned a fourth place finish last weekend following their semi final upset of South Africa. Lachie Anderson has emerged as a growing threat to complement Henry Hutchison and Chucky Stannard is one of the best minds on tour. When they take care of the ball, they're a tough outfit to find holes in.
Fiji has three new players in their thirteen man group but don't expect that to slow them down at all. The offloading show will continue as scheduled. Osea Kolinisau's 120 tries are good for fourth amongst active players this weekend and he'll be looking to spread the ball into the experienced hands of Jerry Tuwai, Vatemo Ravouvou and Jasa Veremalua. A pair of five point losses closed their books in Singapore. Look for more focus on finishing chances here in Paris.
Samoa's rebuild continues under Sir Gordon Tietjens. Despite some close calls against top teams, the Samoans have not been to a Cup Quarterfinal this season. This team won in Paris last year and they'll be looking to break through again. They did lose a tight 19-12 match against the Aussies in pool play in Singapore as well as a 22-19 squeaker in Hong Kong. Perhaps the time is now for Samoa to upend Australia.
QUARTERS & BEYOND:
I like South Africa to get back to their Cup winning ways this weekend. The return of Rosko Specman is important for them and a Cup title would seal the overall World Series championship for 2016-17 as well. Give me Canada, France, England, the US, New Zealand, Australia & Fiji to advance to the Cup Quarters.
by Dan Mason - @Rugby_Global on Twitter